Pubdate: Mon, 11 Sep 2000
Source: Omaha World-Herald (NE)
Copyright: 2000 Omaha World-Herald Company.
Author: Deborah Alexander


Fueled by a rise in drug prosecutions, the number of criminal felony cases in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska has nearly doubled in the past five years.

In 1994, Nebraska's four full-time federal judges each handled 50 criminal cases from the Omaha, Lincoln and North Platte districts. By 1999, the four judges were each handling 91 cases.

More federal drug indictments are responsible for the increase in criminal cases. The prosecution of defendants involved in methamphetamine offenses is the leading contributor, said Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf of Lincoln.

"The drug is so prevalent," Kopf said. "It's an epidemic."

With the retirement this summer of U.S. District Judge William G. Cambridge in Omaha, there are concerns about how soon a replacement could be on the bench to help handle the increasing caseload.

President Clinton is expected to formally nominate a fourth full-time judge, Steven Achelpohl, for the Nebraska district later this month, but no action is expected on the nomination until next year.

Kopf said he and the two remaining full-time U.S. District judges, Joseph Bataillon and Thomas Shanahan, both of Omaha, can manage for now. As of July 31, the Nebraska district had 1,087 pending civil and criminal cases.

"In the short term, our court can get along," Kopf said.

"But the longer it takes, the saying 'justice delayed is justice denied' comes to mind. When anyone spends more time than necessary in the system, it really becomes a problem."

Of the criminal defendants sentenced in the Nebraska district in 1999, nearly 72 percent were for drug offenses. Of those, two-thirds were meth-related. Nationally, 41 percent were sentenced for drug offenses, of which nearly 13 percent were meth-related.

Kopf said that in 1999, Nebraska had the 17th heaviest criminal docket of the 94 federal court districts.

U.S. Attorney Tom Monaghan's office obtained 350 drug indictments in 1999 and convicted 228, according to the office's annual report for that year. Most of these cases were for conspiracy to manufacture and possession with intent to distribute meth.

Authorities say meth, often imported from southwest border states, has become widespread in Nebraska because of the Interstate highway system. Meth dealers have found a market of workers in meatpacking plants and other labor-intensive industries. Some of them use the drug, which stimulates the central nervous system, to help them do their jobs.

As a result, meth-related indictments have been rising steadily in Nebraska. In 1997, 124 people were indicted on meth charges. In 1998, the number rose to 223. By 1999, the number of meth defendants rose to 260.

Also, the number of raided meth labs has grown from two in 1997 to 38 in 1999.

Kopf said that when looking at both criminal and civil cases, and weighting each case according to the amount of time spent and its difficulty, the Nebraska district had the 45th heaviest docket in the nation.

He said that when considering the caseload of criminal and civil cases, Nebraska should have five federal judges instead of the four that are currently authorized. Judges are trying a lot more cases under greater stress.

"A case with eight criminal defendants is not the same as a case with one defendant," Kopf said. "It takes a different amount of time."

Felony cases take priority over any other cases on the docket. Under federal law, a criminal case must be tried 70 days after an indictment is returned.

"That's why we try to handle these cases faster than in the past," Kopf said.

The retirement of Cambridge left Kopf, Bataillon and Shanahan to divide among themselves 745 civil cases as of July 31. Bataillon and Shanahan will split 342 criminal cases.

Kopf said Senior U.S. District Judges Lyle Strom of Omaha and Warren K. Urbom of Lincoln, both part-time, handle a typical caseload of 100 cases each year. They are available to assist with the criminal cases.

Because of the political nature of selecting a federal judicial nominee, a year could pass before the Nebraska vacancy is filled. By that time, Kopf said, the felony caseload for the three existing judges could increase by more than 300.

Another problem: One of Nebraska's four authorized federal judgeships is set to expire when the next judge either takes senior status or retires. The Administrative Office of the U.S. District Courts has proposed making the fourth Nebraska judgeship permanent in a bill pending before Congress. Kopf said there has been no movement on the measure.

He noted that many agencies within the federal criminal justice system in Nebraska have grown along with the caseload.

Among them is the U.S. Public Defender's Office - an agency that did not even exist until the appointment of attorney David Stickman in March 1994. Prior to the formation of the office, private-practice attorneys were appointed to represent indigent clients.

In 1995, during the office's first full year of operation, Stickman had a staff of 10 full-time employees and a $1.1 million budget. By 1999, the staff had grown to 18 full-time employees and the budget to $1.7 million.

In 1994, 18 people worked for the U.S. Marshal Service, which protects judges, transports prisoners and pursues fugitives, said Acting Marshal John Cleveland. This year, 19 employees work in the office. However, by the end of this year, four additional detention officers are scheduled to be added to the staff.

"Everything is increasing except the number of judges," Kopf said. "In some form or fashion, we have to resolve these things.

"We're getting more assistant U.S. attorneys and public defenders, more pretrial services and probation staff. We're going backwards in terms of the three judges. That's the disconnect."
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager