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Bench Pressed

The logjam in Denver's federal district court is one of the worst in the country. Blame Congress, Timothy McVeigh, greedy lawyers -- and judges who don't have time to judge.

Although he dons black robes instead of blue scrubs, there are times when Richard Matsch feels like a doctor hitting a crowded emergency room on a Friday night. Maybe not George Clooney in ER, exactly, but just as calm in the face of unrelenting crises. Resolute. Driven.

"When a judge focuses on a case, he can't be thinking he has to get rid of it because he has 400 more," says Matsch. "It's like dealing with a broken arm in triage. You can't let yourself be distracted from doing a good job on a given case because all these others are waiting and you can hear the groans from the hallway. A judge has to maintain a certain discipline."

As chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Denver, Matsch probably knows more about the kind of discipline expected on the federal bench than any other gavel-wielder in the system. For nearly two years, he presided over one of the most complex, costly and emotionally wrenching criminal cases in the annals of American justice: the trials and sentencing of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols. Week after week, amid stifling security, frantic legal-eagling and a barrage of international media attention, Matsch stayed focused and unflappable. His steady hand at the helm won high praise from attorneys and from a public whose confidence in the judicial system had been on a long slide, thanks to the disastrous dithering of Lance Ito and other celebrated jurists.

But Matsch's performance came at a price. During the long months he grappled exclusively with the McVeigh case, the rest of his caseload was reassigned to other judges in Denver and three visiting judges from Wyoming. The shift further aggravated a festering problem in Colorado's federal judicial district--an alarming backlog of hundreds of cases, many of them filed three, five or even seven years ago. Once known for its remarkable efficiency in doing more with less, the federal bench in Denver is now developing a reputation for strained resources, jammed dockets and an absolutely glacial pace.

Statistics compiled by the court present a dismal picture of the growing logjam. As of last fall, the district had 257 active civil cases that were more than three years old, compared to only 90 such cases four years ago. It now takes nearly two years for the average civil case to go to trial, an increase of almost 50 percent from the average delay in 1993.

The district also had an astounding 1,555 motions pending for more than six months, with two judges--Walker Miller (435 motions pending) and Edward Nottingham (390)--accounting for more than half that total. By contrast, in the entire state of Texas, which boasts four federal judicial districts and 47 federal judges, only one judge, a senior jurist who sits on the bench two to three months a year, had even a hundred motions pending for more than six months. Overall, in terms of the number of civil cases that have dragged on for three years or more, Colorado ranks 79th out of 94 judicial districts across the country.

"It is a problem, and we're working on it," says Judge Matsch. The number of outstanding motions has been "the subject of weekly judges' meetings," he adds.

But Matsch and other judges caution that the numbers may be misleading. For example, the "motions pending" figure doesn't distinguish between dispositive motions (those that can affect the disposition of a case, such as a motion to dismiss) and procedural ones; it may also include scores of now-moot motions from cases that have been settled but haven't been updated in the court's computer system.

"I call our computer HAL," quips Judge Miller. "For some reason, we don't always get the true state of affairs."

Beyond the numbers dispute, though, is an undeniable backlog that is widely acknowledged to be dire and getting worse. The situation is particularly critical on the civil side. Criminal cases are considered high priority and are moved along by speedy-trial requirements and the like, but civil cases are treated quite differently; a judge's failure to rule on a motion for summary judgment could tie up the whole case indefinitely.

While Matsch and his colleagues have only recently begun to discuss the problem publicly, civil attorneys who practice in federal court have been gnashing their teeth in frustration for some time. Most attorneys are loath to criticize the federal bench, since the judges are appointed for life (current annual salary: $136,700) and tend to have long memories. Privately, though, several bemoan the expense, waste and pain caused by the increasing delays in the process. Out of the doctors' hearing, the groans in the hallway are turning into screams.

"We're in a tough spot," concedes one attorney who requested anonymity. "Cases aren't getting resolved. It's like a black hole over there."

"I avoid federal court like the plague," says another. "Civil attorneys are abused, and their cases get delayed over and over."

Some federal civil suits are protracted by their very nature--patent-infringement cases, for example, or complex antitrust or securities litigation. But many of the ancient cases clogging up the Colorado district seem to have lingered on simply out of judicial neglect. Consider these forays into legal oblivion, plucked at random from the backlog of aged but allegedly still active cases:

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