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System feels strain as a US judgeship sits empty

Solution sought for Springfield

US District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor is still hearing cases, but has reduced his workload.

The Springfield Republican

US District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor is still hearing cases, but has reduced his workload.

US District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor thought he was giving decision-makers in Washington plenty of time when he wrote to President Obama on July 23, 2010, informing him he would be stepping down as a full-time judge effective Aug. 15, 2011, more than a year later.

“It is my hope that this early notice will help facilitate the appointment of my successor,” wrote Ponsor, the only judge regularly assigned to the federal court in Springfield. He added, “An extended vacancy would cause real hardship to litigants here and risk compromising the administration of justice for the people of Western Massachusetts.”

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But nearly three years have passed and no judge has been appointed to replace him — a delay that legal observers say is beginning to take a toll on the federal judicial system in Western Massachusetts, with cases being postponed and Boston judges being forced to trek to Springfield to hold hearings.

“It is a burden for all the litigants that is wearing thin. Boston judges have been traveling to help cover criminal proceedings in Springfield, but this creates a disruption for the court because it means we are not here,” said US District Court Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, who is based in Boston. “The criminal justice system works better when defendants from Springfield are tried and sentenced in their own community.”

It is unclear why the seat has not been filled, although some blame the partisan gridlock in Washington. The state’s US senators did their part in August 2011, when John F. Kerry, then the state’s senior senator, and Scott Brown put forth the name of state Superior Court Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder.

White House officials would not comment on their decision to not nominate Kinder, which would have begun the Congressional approval process. Last month, Kinder withdrew his name for consideration for the post.

Ponsor, as a senior judge, is still hearing cases, but has reduced his workload by about 20 percent. This has led to delays and placed a burden on judges in the Boston region.

In one case, a judge had to stay multiple nights in Springfield to hold a trial. Others have made the five-hour round-trip commute only to sentence a defendant, a process that can take less than an hour.

Elizabeth Warren, who took over as the state’s senior senator in February, has formed a search committee to try to find a replacement — a move that legal observers hope will reignite the process and provide some sense of urgency.

The committee, headed by retired US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner, will also search for a replacement for US District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf, who effective Jan. 1 took senior status and a reduced caseload.

Gertner said she hopes to recommend two names by the end of May, saying she has heard from her former colleagues of the need for a replacement. Applications from aspiring judges are due Monday.

Kinder did not return a phone call seeking comment, but wrote in a March 8 letter to Warren that he did not want to be reconsidered for an appointment by the senator’s new committee.

“Even if I were to emerge from the process as your candidate, I can only conclude, based on my experience over the last nineteen months and the current political climate in Washington, that my pursuit of the position would cause additional delay,” he said in the letter. “Such delay would be unfair to the people of western Massachusetts who deserve to have this important position filled quickly.”

A spokesman for Warren could not say why the White House had not nominated Kinder.

John Pucci, a Springfield-based attorney who has been appointed to Warren’s committee to recommend nominees for the Springfield judgeship, said whatever the reason for the delay, the position needs to be filled soon.

“We were not having any success in getting Judge Kinder to the bench,” Pucci said, adding, “We need the vacancy to be filled to have all the cases in the Western counties where they belong, which is in Springfield.”

Pucci said that, with Ponsor reducing his caseload, some civil cases have been moved to Boston, though criminal cases have had to remain in Springfield.

“There’s really an access to justice problem in Western Massachusetts,” Pucci said.

Matthew Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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