Seven U.S. District Court judges are supposed to handle cases in the Western District of Louisiana, a vast expanse that encompasses 42 parishes and includes federal courthouses in Monroe, Shreveport, Alexandria, Lafayette and Lake Charles.

But four of the seven judgeships are vacant, and a fifth one will become so at the beginning of December.

The problem is especially acute in Lafayette and Lake Charles.

“We’re short,” said Judge Dee Drell, the chief judge for the Western District, adding that the situation is forcing him to delay cases.

“We’ll get done what we can do,” he said. “I’m just not sure how long we can successfully do that.”

Louisiana’s two U.S. senators, Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, both Republicans, are moving to fill the Western District vacancies, as well as others in the state, but it’s a slow process.

Meanwhile, problems are much less acute in the state's two other judicial districts, based in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. 

For a vacant district judgeship in New Orleans, Kennedy has recommended that the White House nominate Barry Ashe, a veteran attorney with the Stone Pigman firm, according to three people with knowledge of the selection who spoke on condition of anonymity. (A district court judge oversees trials in the federal court system.)

Ashe graduated with a degree in political science from Tulane University and, after a stint in the Navy, graduated from Tulane’s law school. His clients have included chemical and drug companies, a railroad, the city of New Orleans and Sid-Mar’s restaurant in Bucktown. Ashe declined to comment on Tuesday.

As The Advocate reported Saturday, Cassidy has recommended three candidates for the other vacant district judgeship in New Orleans: Thomas Flanagan, Wendy Vitter and Jay Wilkinson. The White House will forward one of them to the Senate for confirmation.

Those are the only two vacancies in the 15-judge Eastern District, which is based in New Orleans and encompasses 13 parishes in southeast Louisiana.

The Middle District, which is based in Baton Rouge and includes nine parishes, has its full complement of three district court judges plus Judge James Brady, who is on senior status but is carrying a normal load.

“We’re in good shape and moving our dockets,” Brady said.

Judges in the Western District don’t remember a time when they had as many vacancies as they do now.

Three judges on senior status within the Western District are filling in, as are judges from the Eastern and Middle Districts. Federal magistrate judges, who occupy the next rung down from district judges in the federal system, can hear some cases. Drell said he is making plans to bring in judges from out of state to provide additional assistance.

Drell said he is pushing cases back until April or May that he would normally hear in three to four months.

“We’re doing our best to try them as soon as we can,” he said.

The district's three active judges are Elizabeth Erny Foote, S. Maurice Hicks Jr., both in Shreveport, and Drell in Alexandria.

Drell, 69, said he will move to senior status at the beginning of December. That will create a fifth vacancy, although Drell said he plans to continue handling the same caseload for the foreseeable future.

Judge Rebecca Doherty in Lafayette moved to senior status in June but has continued to work. However, she will stop handling cases after September.

When that happens, Lafayette will have no federal district judges or judges on senior status.

“It’s a potential crisis,” said Doherty, who will leave the state and move to inactive senior status, which means that she will no longer have a staff or a judge’s chambers but could handle some cases down the road.

Doherty said Foote and Donald Walter, a Shreveport-based judge who is on senior status, have come to Lafayette to hear cases there.

“But come on, guys, it’s time to get some judges in here,” Doherty said.

Walter, 81, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, said that making the trek from Shreveport to hear cases in Lafayette and Lake Charles can be taxing.

“All of us there are doing our best to keep things on track, and we’re doing a good job of it,” he said.

The first vacancy in Lafayette was created in 2015 when Judge Richard Haik moved to senior status. A year later, he retired and joined a law firm where his son is a partner.

In February 2016, President Barack Obama nominated Stephanie Finley, a well-regarded veteran prosecutor who was at the time the U.S. attorney in the Western District, to replace Haik. But Republicans in the Senate blocked her from getting a vote on the floor, part of a broader overall strategy to stall Obama’s nominations in hopes that a Republican would win the White House and then get the opportunity to fill the judgeships.

The strategy worked, but it has contributed to the shortage.

President Donald Trump's administration, meanwhile, has been slow to fill vacancies. There are 119 vacancies nationwide, with 22 pending nominations, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

One of those nominated by Trump is Michael Juneau, a founding member of Juneau David, a Lafayette-based litigation firm, to fill Haik’s vacancy.

“The senator met personally with Mr. Juneau to discuss his qualifications and was delighted when President Trump nominated Mr. Juneau shortly before the August recess,” Kennedy’s office said in a statement. “Since Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Cassidy have been alternating nominations, Sen. Cassidy now has the next nomination to make in Lafayette.”

Cassidy’s office said he “formed a committee to make recommendations and advise the senator on judicial appointments. As ultimately, the decision is up to the president, we will withhold further comment until the White House makes a formal announcement.”

Lake Charles also has no judge since Patricia Head Minaldi moved to inactive senior status in July after well-publicized problems with alcohol abuse.

When Doherty steps down, it will be “the first time we’ve had no active judge in Lafayette and Lake Charles at the same time,” said Haik, now a Lafayette-based attorney with the Opelousas law firm of Morrow Morrow Ryan Basset & Haik. “The criminal docket there is heavy. It’s the pipeline that comes in from Texas on I-10 — a lot of drug trafficking. It takes a lot of time.”

In Monroe, Judge Robert G. James is on senior status but is continuing to hear cases. Trump has nominated state Judge Terry Doughty to fill his vacancy. Doughty is a judge for the state's 5th Judicial District Court, where he hears criminal, civil and juvenile cases in Franklin, Richland and West Carroll parishes.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.