- Associated Press - Saturday, July 18, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - The looming departures of two senior federal judges in Kansas in the next couple of months are expected to exacerbate a backlog of cases in U.S. District Court in Kansas, creating heavier caseloads for fewer judges at a time civil litigation oftentimes already languishes for years in the federal courts.

U.S. District Judge Richard Rogers, 93, is due to fully retire from the federal court in Topeka in August, and U.S. District Judge Monti Belot, 72, is expected to fully retire from the Wichita federal court in September.

Both judges have been on “senior status,” a form of semi-retirement that allows a judge to collect his salary but work at a reduced level if he chooses. Rogers, who was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, took senior status in 1989 and has since then maintained a full caseload. So did Belot, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and took senior status in 2008.

Their continued service for years as senior judges epitomizes how the federal court system keeps working even as litigation steadily increases, new judgeships remain rare, and judicial openings go unfilled for months or years.

But now - since their judgeships were already filled years ago when they first went on senior status - neither judge will be replaced when they leave the federal bench, said U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten, the chief judge for federal courts in Kansas.

That means that the loss of the two senior judges just a month apart will leave Kansas with just five active district judges handling all the criminal cases in the federal courts, and three remaining senior judges who have opted to hear only civil cases. Kansas has one federal judicial vacancy that has been unfilled for a year, and Marten anticipates it will likely remain empty until after the next presidential election.

To put it in some perspective, consider that last year federal judges in the state closed 1,956 cases, a figure that represents the number of defendants sentenced or civil cases ended. It does not include the criminal and civil cases they handled that are still open.

The federal courts in Kansas already have trials booked as far ahead as 2017 for civil cases, Marten said. At times, between eight and 12 federal trials are scheduled for the same day in Kansas, with the expectation that 98 percent of them will settled or plead out before actually going to trial.

Nationwide, senior status judges handled 24 percent of all civil and criminal cases that were closed last year, up from 14 percent in 1996, according to a study released this month by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

But In Kansas, the share of cases handled by senior judges last year is far higher: encompassing 48.5 percent of the workload, according to the TRAC study. Kansas has the eighth-highest percentage of cases handled by senior judges among U.S. states.

“Senior judges play a critical role in dispensing justice in the nation’s federal courts,” said Charlie Hall, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. “If they all retired tomorrow, it would be far more difficult for the active full-time judges to manage the court’s cases.”

Holly Dyer, an attorney who serves as president of the Wichita Bar Association, expressed concern about whether the state will have enough judges left to handle the caseloads at its three federal courthouses in Topeka, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas. She worries about the speed of cases getting resolved when there are fewer judges to handle them.

Both Belot and Rogers have left their mark in Kansas during their long years on the bench. Rogers reopened the Brown v Topeka Board of Education case that led to building magnet schools in Topeka. He also handled a Kansas prison overcrowding lawsuit that resulted in the construction of the El Dorado prison and improvements at other state correctional facilities.

Belot presided over a number of high-profile criminal cases, including the first U.S. trial related to the Rwandan genocide. Among the others were the prosecution of a Haysville doctor and his wife accused of a moneymaking conspiracy that led to 68 overdose deaths and the case of an avionics technician who recently admitted to having plotted a suicide bombing at a Wichita airport.

Marten, who serves with Belot in Wichita, also said he sees the impact of his colleague’s departure on a personal level: “We are going to miss him, not just his work on cases.”

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