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The U.S. District Court for Utah is one of the busiest in the nation. But for three years, its benches have been understaffed and available judges overworked. The standoff in the U.S. Senate over 17 judicial nominations — including two for Utah — hasn't helped.

And who else but Sen. Mike Lee, the self-described constitutionalist, is in the thick of it. He's still peeved about President Barack Obama's recess appointment of Richard Cordray to lead a consumer protection bureau.

He's also conflicted: He supports Magistrate David Nuffer, a nominee for the Utah federal district, but doesn't care for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's effort to force a vote. No word on the other nominee, Robert J. Shelby, an attorney in private practice.

"Because of the issues I've got with the president's unconstitutional abuse of the recess-appointment power, I've acknowledged I'll be voting differently," Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday. But he declined to say how.

So Lee would rather see Utah's only federal court get by with a huge caseload — last year, the momentum was in foreclosures. Judges are increasingly turning to mediation or pretrial conferences that could avoid a trial, and magistrate and senior judges are doing what they can to help out, even though they're semi-retired.

Even Sen. Orrin Hatch thinks blanket opposition to all nominees goes too far.

You might think of trials as staid, stuffy proceedings. But last year, Senior Judge Dale Kimball oversaw the Brian David Mitchell trial, and Judge Dee Benson oversaw the Tim DeChristopher affair.

Early this year, Senior Judge Tena Campbell presided over the Tongan Crip Gang trial and Judge Clark Waddoups heard arguments in the federal case against Utah's HB497 illegal immigration bill.

Those are the big-name cases. Most of what the district court does is far less riveting, but of vast importance to those involved — foreclosures, for example. Who wouldn't be distraught and looking for help if they're about to lose their home?

Despite the crush of work, Utah's jurists are a "remarkable contingency" who willingly take on the extra work to help out their colleagues, says Clerk of the Court Mark Jones. "They have a strong camaraderie and professionalism."

By midday Wednesday, Reid dropped his plan to force votes on the 17 nominations, ending a stalemate with Republicans and letting the Senate move forward on other matters, including Obama's American JOBS Act, which has bipartisan support.

The Senate will vote on 14 nominations, including those for Utah, by May 17, but there's no word when Nuffer and Shelby might come up.

There's also no telling whether Lee will have gotten over his displeasure with Obama's recess appointment and vote for Nuffer and Shelby — and the judges, attorneys, staff, the accused and accusers — in the U.S. District Court for Utah.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at, and Twitter, @pegmcentee. Leahy jabs at Lee

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee belittled Sen. Mike Lee's ongoing protest. › A10

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