More Evidence that the 'Court Efficiency Act' Isn't So Efficient

Unable to come up with any legitimate reason to filibuster President Obama’s three nominees to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Senate Republicans have landed on a not-so-convincing excuse: They claim that the court has too many judges as it is and that it would be wasteful to fill its remaining vacancies.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has even gone so far as to introduce a bill that would permanently reduce the number of seats on the influential court from eleven to eight (the number of active judges currently sitting on the court), thereby preventing President Obama from placing any more nominees on the court. (The president has had one nominee confirmed to the DC Circuit, compared to four nominees under President Bush and eight under President Reagan).

Grassley’s bill would reduce the number of slots on the DC Circuit by three and “reallocate” two of those seats  to circuits that he contends need the judges more.

There are a number of gaping flaws in Grassley’s logic, the first of which is that he and his fellow Republicans were eager to fill the very same DC Circuit seats that they are now trying to eliminate back when President Bush was the one making nominations.

Then, there’s the fact that there seems to be absolutely no basis for reallocating the two D.C. Circuit seats to the Eleventh and Second circuits. The official office that evaluates the needs of federal courts and makes recommendations for adding and removing seats doesn’t include the D.C. Circuit in its recommendations because the court’s caseload is uniquely complex and difficult to compare to that of other courts…and it also hasn’t recommended that the Eleventh or Second circuits get new judges.

This was confirmed by a former Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit whose statement  [see p. 34 of this pdf] was submitted into the Senate record last month confirming that his former court indeed does not need new judges:

Since my appointment to the Eleventh Circuit on October 1, 1990, the judges of our court annually have voted whether or not we should ask Congress to authorize more federal judges.  Each time our court considers the topic, an overwhelming majority of our members have voted “no!” 

Even one of the co-sponsors of the court-rigging bill – Sen. Jeff Sessions – has gone on record saying that the Eleventh and Second Circuits actually don’t need new judgeships.

All of which makes one suspect that of all the goals that Sen. Grassley might have in mind with the Court Efficiency Act, the efficiency of the courts is probably not one of them.

PFAW

Iowa Senate Candidate Bruce Braley Stands Against Citizens United

The Democratic frontrunner in the 2014 Iowa Senate race, US Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA01), is placing the issue of money in politics front and center in his campaign.

On Sunday, Representative Braley sent an email to his supporters requesting they sign a petition to stand with him “to stop more money from flooding our election system.” The letter referred to McCutcheon v. FEC – a campaign finance case that the Court is hearing this term – and the infamous Citizens United decision, which Braley said is “destroying the election process.”

The American public overwhelmingly agrees with Representative Braley’s assessment, but Braley, a longtime supporter of campaign finance reform, has proven he’s not in the “money in politics” fight just because of public opinion.

Prior to Citizens United in the 111th Congress, Braley cosponsored the “Fair Elections Now Act,” a bill that provided for public financing of congressional campaigns. Following Citizens United, in 2010 and 2012 he cosponsored the DISCLOSE Act, which, had it not been blocked by Republican filibusters, would have stopped “dark money” social welfare organizations and trade associations from spending anonymously in federal elections.

Braley has personal experience with these Citizens United-empowered dark money groups. As People For the American Way documented in “Citizens Blindsided,” during the 2010 election, Braley was the target of a large influx of anonymous outside spending from the American Future Fund, a secretive group without an office or even a website.

In May 2012, Braley spoke about the attack ads in an appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show. In the interview, Braley referred to Citizens United as the “worst thing to happen to democracy in [his] lifetime” and spoke about the implications of the decision:

… now, we can see that very powerful moneyed interests are trying to buy the government they want and have no restrictions—literally—on what they can spend. And that’s why Americans have to wake up and realize they need to ask the tough questions when they see these ads on TV and they have innocuous names – paid for by the American Future fund. Most people don’t realize that this is really a highly coordinated effort to get rid of people who speak truth to power and aren’t going to be swayed by some of these powerful special interests [emphasis added].

In 2014 in Iowa, voters have the chance to stand with Representative Braley and against “these powerful special interests.” They want to dominate the political process by buying it; he wants to keep the “for sale” sign off the US Senate.

 

PFAW

New Nominees Highlight Growing Diversity on the Courts

One of President Obama’s most important long-term achievements has been his concerted effort to bring qualified judicial nominees from a wide variety of backgrounds to the federal bench. 42 percent of President Obama’s confirmed judicial nominees have been women, compared with just 22 percent of those nominated by the second President Bush and 29 percent of those nominated President Clinton. Likewise, 46 percent of his confirmed nominees have been people of color, a dramatic change from the previous administration, in which 82 percent of federal judicial nominees were white. And President Obama has nominated more openly gay people to federal judgeships than all of his predecessors combined. (All of these numbers are available in this pdf from our friends at Alliance For Justice).

The four new judicial nominations that the White House announced last night are perfect examples of this effort to make the courts better reflect the people they serve. One, Judge Carolyn B. McHugh, who has been nominated to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, would be the first woman to sit on a federal appeals court in Utah. Pamela L. Reeves, nominated to the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Elizabeth A. Wolford, nominated to the Western District of New York, would be the first women to serve in their respective districts. And Debra M. Brown, nominated to the Northern District of Mississippi, would be the first African-American federal judge in her district and the first African-American woman to serve as an Article III judge in Mississippi.

Another important type of diversity among federal judges – one where there has been some progress but where there is still room for improvement – is diversity of professional background. Judges who have worked as public interest or legal aid attorneys bring a perspective to the bench that is different from that brought by prosecutors and litigators representing corporate clients. One example of this professional diversity is Iowa’s Jane Kelly, who was recently confirmed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals with unanimous bipartisan support from the Senate. An Associated Press profile yesterday explained the important perspective that Kelly will bring to the federal bench  from her experience as a federal public defender:

The 48-year-old attorney has spent her career as a public defender representing low-income criminal defendants, a rarity in the ranks of appeals court judges who are often former prosecutors and trial judges. She'll become just the second woman in the 122-year history of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in seven states from Arkansas to the Dakotas.

Associates say she is a smart legal thinker who has zealously defended the rights of even the most publicly despised clients, including a notorious mailbox bombing suspect and the biggest white-collar criminal in Iowa history. Even prosecutors who disagreed with her in court praise Kelly, who will take the oath of office privately.

"Her story is compelling all the way around," said Debra Fitzpatrick of the University of Minnesota-based Infinity Project, which advocates for more women on the 8th Circuit. "Her credentials and her background and her career sort of set her up to be the right candidate at the right time."

A long-distance runner, Kelly's life almost ended when she went for a morning jog on the Cedar River Trail in June 2004. She was tackled and beaten by a male stranger, then dragged to a creek and left for dead. Passersby found Kelly in a pool of blood, in and out of consciousness and struggling to call for help. Speculation swirled that the attack was linked to Kelly's legal work, but no one ever was arrested.

Kelly quickly returned to representing criminal defendants after spending months in recovery. Her colleagues gave her the John Adams Award, which recognizes an Iowa lawyer's commitment to the constitutional right to criminal defense. And hundreds gathered one year later for a "Take Back the Trail" event, where Kelly jogged there again for the first time.

Kelly grew up in Newcastle, Ind., and graduated from Duke University in 1987. She earned a Fulbright scholarship to study in New Zealand before enrolling at Harvard, where she and Obama were acquaintances but not friends. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Donald Porter in South Dakota and then for Hansen.

She taught one year at University of Illinois law school before returning to Iowa as one of the first hires for the new public defender's office. She's been a fixture ever since, often representing "not the most popular person in the room," as she put it in her confirmation hearing, including drug dealers, pornographers and con artists.

Other pending nominees with public defender experience include Michael McShane (Oregon), Luis Felipe Restrepo (Pennsylvania), Jeffrey Schmehl (Pennsylvania), Rosemary Márquez (Arizona), and William Thomas (Florida).

PFAW

Senate Confirms Second Woman and First Ever Public Defender to Eighth Circuit

Yesterday, the Senate unanimously confirmed Iowa’s Jane Kelly to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Kelly, who currently serves as a federal public defender, becomes “only the second woman, and the first public defender, to serve in the history of the court that was established in 1891,” according to the Iowa City Gazette.

Kelly also makes history by having the quickest confirmation process of any of President Obama’s appeals court nominees so far, according to the Gazette. Kelly waited just 33 days for a confirmation vote, compared to the average 153 day wait for President Obama’s circuit court nominees (as of two weeks ago). Kelly’s quick confirmation, however, would not have been at all noteworthy at this point in George W. Bush administration, when appellate nominees waited an average of just 37 days between committee approval and Senate confirmation.  

Kelly’s speedy confirmation may have something to do with the senators supporting her. Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee has been instrumental in obstructing President Obama’s judicial nominees, seemed to put aside his obstruction habits for a nominee from his own state.
 

PFAW

When the Judicial Nominations Process Works

The Senate Judiciary Committee announced today that it will hold a hearing next week on the nomination of Jane Kelly to be a judge on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. This is great news, and not only because she's an excellent nominee: It also shows how efficiently the nomination and confirmation process can work.

During the summer, circuit Judge Mike Melloy announced that he would be taking senior status early in 2013. Since he is from Iowa, his replacement would also be from Iowa, and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin launched a process to identify qualified nominees to recommend to the White House. He forwarded two names in November, and the White House – after a full vetting process that takes many weeks – announced its nomination of Kelly on January 31, just one day after the vacancy formally opened up. Sen. Harkin's speed was an essential part of keeping this vacancy open for as short a time as possible.

Iowa's other senator is also playing a key role in moving the process along, because the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy will not hold a hearing on a nominee until both home-state senators give their approval (or, in Senate lingo, "submit their blue slips"). That senator is none other than the committee's ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, who in this case quickly gave his approval to a clearly qualified nominee. So three weeks after the nomination was announced, the hearing has been scheduled.

Kelly is a terrific nominee who has dedicated her career to defending those who cannot afford to pay for legal representation. She has been an Assistant Federal Public Defender in Iowa since 1994. She would be the first public defender to sit on the Eighth Circuit, bringing an important element of professional diversity to the court. She would also be the first woman from Iowa to serve on the Eighth Circuit and only the second woman to serve on that court.

With the president, White House staff, and Sens. Harkin and Grassley all working together to quickly fill a vacancy with a highly qualified nominee, the process is moving along at an excellent pace. We look forward to the hearing and a timely committee vote, and we hope that she will then expeditiously get a confirmation vote from the full Senate.

PFAW

Obama Nominates Iowa’s First Ever Female Circuit Court Judge

The White House announced two new federal appeals court nominees today, Jane Kelly of Iowa to serve on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and Gregory Alan Phillips of Wyoming to serve on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kelly’s nomination is notable for a number of reasons. If confirmed, she will become only the second woman ever to serve on the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees seven Midwestern states, and the first from Iowa. She would also help to bring a greater diversity of professional backgrounds to the federal bench, coming to the position after a career as a highly-regarded federal public defender.

Kelly’s nomination underscores the Obama administration’s remarkable success in bringing a diversity of voices to the federal bench. A record 41 percent of President Obama’s confirmed nominees have been women and 36 percent have been people of color. In addition, Obama has nominated more openly gay federal judges than all previous presidents combined. Despite the Senate GOP’s routine stalling of the president’s nominees, he has succeeded in bringing unprecedented gender and racial diversity to the federal bench.

Both Kelly and Phillips have been nominated to vacancies that have not yet opened up (Kelly’s vacancy opens tomorrow and Phillips’ in April). If the Senate confirms them quickly it will avoid adding two more vacancies to an already over-burdened federal court system. Promptly filling the 10th Circuit vacancy  is especially critical since the 12-judge Tenth Circuit  is on track to have vacancies in one third of its seats. A nominee for one of the three current vacancies on the circuit, Robert Bacharach of Oklahoma, has been waiting over seven months for a Senate vote, despite strong support from his two home-state Republican senators.

 

PFAW

Still No Explanation From Grassley on Judiciary Committee Delays

This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved five nominees to serve on federal district courts in New York, California and Florida and on the US Court of International Trade. A week ago, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley postponed votes on all five nominations without giving a reason, a delaying tactic that he has used on 97 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees who the committee has voted on.

Sen. Grassley did not explain the reason for the delay last week, when a coalition of Iowa and national groups urged him to stop such routine delays. And the reason remained unclear today, as all five nominees were approved without opposition.

These five nominees now join fifteen other federal judicial nominees awaiting confirmation votes from the full Senate. The Senate has made progress by scheduling confirmation votes on four unopposed district court nominees in the past week, but that small amount of progress isn’t nearly enough to fill the gaps in overworked federal courts. Seven of the nominees still waiting for votes would fill officially-designated “judicial emergencies.”

It would be easy, of course, for the Senate to hold votes on all of the remaining nominees before the end of the year. After all, most were approved by the Judiciary Committee many months ago. But Senate Republicans have continued to stall even nominees with strong bipartisan support. All the circuit court nominees waiting for votes have the support of their home-state senators, Republican and Democratic, and nearly all of the pending district court nominees were approved by the Judiciary Committee with unanimous or nearly unanimous bipartisan support. One circuit court nominee, New Jersey’s Patty Shwartz, has been waiting nine months just for an up-or-down vote from the Senate; Federal Circuit nominee Richard Taranto has also been waiting since March.

If the Senate fails to vote on these nominees during the lame duck, the confirmation process – from presidential nomination through floor vote – will have to start all over again next year.

Notable about the district court nominees approved by the Judiciary Committee today is that all are women or people of color, representative of President Obama’s efforts to bring diversity to the federal courts. The nominees also include New York’s Pamela Chen, who would become just the fifth openly gay person to be confirmed to a lifetime federal judgeship.

PFAW

Grassley's Non-Response on Judicial Nominations

Sen. Chuck Grassley has provided a weak and misleading response to a letter sent yesterday by 16 Iowa and national organizations (including People For the American Way) holding him accountable for a type of obstruction of judicial nominees that he has perpetrated as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. All but five of President Obama's nominees who have had a committee vote scheduled have had to endure a delay at the insistence of committee Republicans. That's 97% of those nominees. This abuse of the minority's right to request a delay is unprecedented. These delays have run one, three, even six weeks, before the nominees are approved by the committee with overwhelming bipartisan support. This is part of a larger pattern of obstructing qualified nominees in every way possible, simply because they were nominated by a Democratic president.

Yesterday, as reported in The Daily Nonpareil, Grassley issued a misleading response. He changed the subject to how many nominees have been confirmed, throwing out misleading and irrelevant statistics:

First of all, for the four years of this administration, we approved 160 nominations, and during the same period of time in the last Bush administration, there were 120 nominations; so don't let anybody tell you we're not moving nominees.

That is true if "same period of time" means "different period of time." But in fact, Grassley is referring to Bush's second term, not his first term. Comparing the real "same periods of time" reveals that Bush had more than 200 nominees confirmed during his first term, many more than Obama's 160.

Bush was bound to have far fewer confirmations in his second term, since the Senate did not obstruct his consensus nominations. His confirmed nominees waited on average only 1/3 as long after committee approval for a floor vote than has been the case for Obama's nominees. That shaved months off their wait time and allowed vacancies to be filled efficiently.

Secondly, we had two Supreme Court nominees [during Obama's first term] and they take time.

What does this have to do with the issue raised in the letter? Are we to believe that during 2011 and 2012, Grassley and his Republican colleagues did not have enough time to look over nominees' records because they had been so busy with the Sotomayor and Kagan nominations back in 2009 and 2010?

Grassley has argued before that Obama's first-term confirmation numbers should be compared to Bush's second term numbers, because both had two time-consuming Supreme Court nominations. But what he fails to tell people is that even then, Bush's judicial nominees were processed far more swiftly than Obama's have been. The disparity in waiting time on the Senate floor is particular egregious with district courts, which at one time were generally immune from partisan gamesmanship: 33 days for Bush's second-term nominees vs. 97 days for Obama's first-term nominees (so far).

Grassley also claimed that Obama's nominees "have been slow in responding to committee questions." When Grassley has delayed votes on all but five nominees, that explanation strains credulity and shows disrespect to the men and women who have come before the committee. Last year, he even demanded a two-week delay for a nominee who had already been approved without opposition several months earlier, in a previous Congress, but who had not gotten a vote on the Senate floor in time for the end of the year. When Sue Myerscough was renominated, she was again deemed well qualified by a unanimous ABA panel (its highest rating), and she was so familiar to the Judiciary Committee that she was not asked to testify again or to respond to individual members' written questions. Yet even her committee vote was delayed by two weeks upon Grassley's demand.

Grassley's "explanations" fall short.

Based on his response, it was no surprise this morning when Grassley blocked a scheduled committee vote on five nominees who had their hearings back in mid-September.

It is the same old story of damaging and unprincipled obstruction by Senate Republicans that we have seen since Obama won his first election. This particular tactic is a part of a larger mechanism of obstruction, one that delays nominees without reason at all stages of the process, from nomination to final confirmation vote. As ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley is doing what he can to contribute to that mechanism of obstruction.

Unfortunately, the ones who pay the highest price are the American people and businesses who lose their day in court because of the historic vacancy crisis that Grassley and his colleagues are intentionally prolonging.

PFAW

Step back for ex-offender voting rights in Florida

Florida Governor Rick Scott has reversed the policy of his predecessor, fellow Republican Charlie Crist, of automatically restoring suffrage to non-violent offenders who have completed their sentences. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad earlier reversed a similar policy in his state.

Florida once again requires ex-offenders to wait five years before applying to have their voting rights restored, rejoining Iowa, along with Virginia and Kentucky, as the only states that withhold suffrage for ex-offenders once released from state supervision. Florida actually leads the nation in denying voting rights to ex-offenders, and even more could be disenfranchised thanks to the efforts to purge the voter rolls. Overall, over 10% of Floridians are now disenfranchised, including nearly a quarter of African Americans.

In Governor Scott’s defense, Press Secretary Lane Wright claimed:

Some people look to make any issue they can about race or politics. The issue of convicted felons voting rights is about neither one.

Clearly the facts tell a different story.

This is part of a pattern throughout the South of disenfranchisement of people with past felony convictions that disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic voters. More than four million Southerners are now denied their right to vote because of these policies.

For more information, check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

Mitt Romney Still Thinks Corporations are People. They Still Aren’t.

Campaigning in Florida today, Mitt Romney doubled down on his recent claim that “corporations are people”:


Speaking to a town hall-style gathering at a Miami airport hotel, the former Massachusetts governor repeated the line he first said last month at the Iowa State Fair.


“I’ll communicate to the private sector, by the way, that we like you,” Romney said in response to a question about how to encourage banks to lend more money. “We like enterprise. I was in Iowa the other day, and people suggested that we just raise taxes on corporations.”


He went on: “I told them, corporations are people. … Raising taxes on corporations is raising taxes on people.”


While it’s true that corporations are owned by people, Romney intentionally ignores the basic purpose of corporations: to be a legal entities separate from human beings that own them, with different rights and responsibilities under the law. He also ignores the fact that many large corporations pay much less in taxes than actual human beings – GE, for instance, paid no federal income taxes in 2010.

Even if corporations were people, they’d be doing fairly well in today’s economy. Corporate profits have soared in the past year, even as more and more human beings are out of jobs and facing poverty.

When Romney made his first “corporations are people” remark, we responded with a petition and a TV ad in New Hampshire. Sounds like it’s time to dust that ad off:

 

 

PFAW