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Washington • Court officials have designated a vacant federal judge seat in Utah as a "judicial emergency," a red-flag warning to the Senate that the spot needs to be filled immediately.

But the nominee awaiting confirmation, Robert Shelby, is stuck in limbo amid partisan gridlock, and it's unclear if the Senate will approve him before its August recess.

Judge Tena Campbell created the vacancy in January 2011 when she moved to senior status, a form of semi-retirement that allows long-serving judges to take on fewer cases.

A judicial emergency is declared when a vacancy has caused the court to overflow with cases with too few judges to hear them, slowing down the wheels of justice.

Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2011, Shelby, a partner in the Salt Lake City firm of Snow, Christensen & Martineau, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in April but the full Senate has yet to vote on him. Nominees for "judicial emergency" spots often get preference for the Senate to hear and vote on quickly.

"It doesn't always happen that way, but it should," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "It lets the members of the Senate and Judiciary Committee know it's more urgent. ... The point is, this needs to be filled as soon as possible."

Tobias said the Senate has been slow to fill district and circuit court openings, mostly due to partisan politics playing out in Washington.

The office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said whether a confirmation vote on Shelby happens soon would be up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Hatch spokesman Matthew Harakal said his boss is confident Shelby should have no trouble being confirmed since there is no controversy surrounding him and he's qualified.

If the Senate follows tradition, Shelby could be third up for consideration, though there were no confirmation votes scheduled past Tuesday.

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