The John M. Roll Federal Courthouse in Yuma is now an authorized venue for most federal district court proceedings, following President Trump's signing of the enabling legislation.

Bills in the House and Senate were sponsored or co-sponsored by the entire Arizona congressional delegation in a bipartisan act of support, and the end result confers that authority to both Yuma and Flagstaff.

“This is a great win for Arizonans in northern and southern Arizona,” Republican Sen. Martha McSally said in a statement this week. “Now, federal proceedings can be held in Yuma and Flagstaff and the ability to access our justice system has been made just a little bit easier."

Both cities have federal courthouses, but they were limited in scope, due at least in part to a 7-decade-old federal rule stating the only Arizona cities U.S. federal district could hold court in were Phoenix, Tucson, Prescott and Globe.

For Yuma County, this meant residents involved in a federal felony trial had to travel to Phoenix for all proceedings, an added burden for victims, witnesses and jurors being compelled to participate.

Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls said in a statement after the bill was passed by the Senate, "As the third largest metropolitan area in the state of Arizona, the passage of this bill is monumental for Yuma. Before, residents in southwestern Arizona had to travel to larger cities for justice in federal court."

The change, approved by unanimous consent of the Senate on July 25 in its final step before going to President Trump's desk, was signed Friday. Aug. 9 The law appears to take effect immediately.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge James F. Metcalfe presides over the Yuma courthouse and can try certain misdemeanors, enter petty crime sentences, enter sentences for certain misdemeanors, handle certain evidentiary and discovery disputes in trials, and conduct civil trials with the consent of the parties, according to 28 U.S. Code § 636.

District court judges – there are 15 in the Phoenix district of the Arizona U.S. court – have general jurisdiction, so they can handle any kind of federal case, including felony criminal and any civil cases.

The Roll federal courthouse has been in use since late 2013, and was named after the U.S. District Court chief judge killed in the mass shooting in Tucson which targeted former Rep. Gabby Giffords. He signed the final documents authorizing its construction shortly before his death.

It opened with great fanfare and cost $33 million to build, with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It has a large outdoor area in front appropriate for public gatherings, but has no designated public parking. This is also the case at the Phoenix federal courthouse.

The 56,000 square-foot building houses two courtrooms, judge's chambers, jury facilities, probation and pretrial services, district and bankruptcy court services, and the U.S. Marshals Service.

It has holding facilities for up to 120 defendants, and the number of misdemeanor immigration cases processed per day can reach levels approaching that number. In those cases, district judges can appear through a video link.

Bankruptcies, federal probation cases and naturalization of new citizens are also handled there.

Brian D. Karth, district court executive for the U.S. District Court for Arizona, did not respond to an email Tuesday about how the new law could affect operations in Yuma.

Two Yuma attorneys had somewhat differing takes on whether it will have much impact here.

Jimmie D. Smith, who has been practicing here for more than 40 years, said he's skeptical about much changing at the courthouse, given that no "Article 3" judges live in the area.

Full-fledged district court judges are appointed by the president after confirmation by the Senate, and can serve for the rest of their lives unless they're impeached by the Senate, Smith said.

"We have a very magnificent courthouse and courtroom here, but any district judge, with Tucson 250 miles away and Phoenix 200 miles away, I don't think they'll be overly eager to travel back and forth, and if they do come every once in a while, it won't be used every day."

Conversely, few Yuma attorneys have experience practicing in federal court, due to the impracticality of paying for their travel along with other costs.

He agrees that being able to have full federal trials here would make things more convenient for victims and witnesses who live in Yuma County. "It'll do that, if it gets used for that," he said.

Another Yuma lawyer, Cid Kallen, served as a public defender for the U.S. District Court about five years ago, and from what he saw then and continues to hear, there are enough cases -- particularly through the Yuma Sector of the Border Patrol -- to warrant having a district judge come down here.

"I imagine what's going to happen is they'll make an arrangement, they'll block off certain days and it'll be a full calendar. I definitely think that is helpful if they do take advantage of it. It's a beautiful new courthouse, and I think it's been underutilized, that's for sure," he said.

"I think that the need is there, the justification is there, and if they are intending on sending somebody, it'll definitely be helpful in processing those cases," he said.

If Yuma's federal caseload does increase, "it'll be interesting to see what the impact is on the community in general.

"Even something as simple as, if the cases are going to be managed and handled from beginning to end in Yuma, that's going to have the impact of requiring additional resources to house the federal detainees until the case is resolved, basically several months, instead of shipping them off really early on."

Doing so could require hiring more federal detention officers and other personnel, he said.

But he stressed this is all hypothetical at this point. "Volume-wise, there's definitely a need for it, there's definitely a use for it. The question being, are they going to use it? Well, I have no idea."

Yuma Sun reporter Blake Herzog can be reached at 928-539-6856 or bherzog@yumasun.com.

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