Senate Should Quickly Confirm Circuit Nominees, Like in 2006 Midterm Year

Because Republicans are now filibustering every judicial nominee and generally requiring hours of needless "post-cloture debate" before an actual confirmation vote can be held, it has been harder than ever to "clear the calendar" (which is Senate lingo for "hold confirmation votes on all the nominees who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee and are pending on the Senate floor"). Among the 31 nominees left hanging when the Senate took off for its spring recess last week are six circuit court nominees.

Five of the six were nominated last year; the sixth was nominated in February and was fully vetted by the Judiciary Committee earlier this month. Every one of these nominees should have a confirmation vote this spring, and any circuit nominees cleared by the committee in the coming months should have a confirmation vote before the Senate recesses for the midterm elections.

This would hardly be exceptional. In 2006, at this point in George W. Bush's presidency, the Senate confirmed eight circuit court nominees between April and September (plus a ninth during the lame duck session). Most of them had not even been nominated at this point in 2006 yet were confirmed by year's end, all but one before the Senate recessed for the midterms. These circuit court nominees went all the way from nomination to confirmation as little as 3½ months, 2½ months, and (in two cases) just two months.

Exceptional? Hardly. Only by redefining the current era of Republican obstruction as normal can the efficient processing of circuit court nominations be regarded as exceptional.

If the Senate in 2006 could confirm so many of President Bush's circuit court nominees so quickly, then why apply a different set of rules to President Obama's nominees?

Perhaps that is a question to ask Senate Republicans in the coming weeks if they have the audacity to demand an even slower pace on President Obama's nominees as the midterm elections approach.

PFAW

So Many Vacancies, So Little Cooperation from GOP Senators

President Obama has had a lot more vacancies to fill in our nation's judiciary than George W. Bush had at this point in his presidency. Unfortunately, due to obstructionism from the GOP, that has resulted in a large number of longtime vacancies without nominees.

Especially at the district court level, senators play an enormous role in determining who will be nominated to judgeships in their state. When senators work cooperatively with the White House, recommendations and nominations can be made quickly. We’ve seen such cooperation from senators in states like Virginia, Vermont, New Mexico, and Colorado. Not coincidentally, these are all states with two Democratic senators.

States with Republican senators are far more likely to have vacancies without nominees. Of the 37 current vacancies without nominees, all but six are from states with at least Republican senator. And of those six, only one is more than a year old. Despite White House consultations with home state senators, vacancies are remaining open and without nominees for far too long - sometimes years - in states with Republican senators.

These are things to think about next time you see someone blaming the persistently high vacancy rate on a lack of nominees from the White House.

PFAW

Obama's Had a Lot More Judicial Vacancies to Fill than Bush Did

Politico had a headline a few days ago proclaiming that “Obama [is] now Outpacing George W. Bush on judges.” The key take-away was that Obama has had a few more judges confirmed than Bush had at the same point in his presidency.

But that only tells part of the story, as many have pointed out. Although Obama's absolute number is slightly higher, he has also made many more nominations than Bush had at this point, something the Politico article mentioned but didn't highlight. So a more revealing statistic is that Bush had 88% of his nominees confirmed at this point, while Obama only has only had 79%.

One reason Obama has made so many more nominations is that there have been so many more vacancies to fill. While 270 judicial vacancies have opened up since January 2009, only 202 had opened up during the corresponding period during President Bush's time in office.

So, for Obama: Lots more vacancies than Bush. Lots more nominations than Bush. Yet basically the same number of confirmations as Bush.

That isn't parity.

PFAW

Blue Slips: Republicans Should Stop Abuse of Consultation Process

In an op-ed Sunday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, addressed critics of his use of blue slips, a committee tradition that Republicans continue to abuse. Under this policy, the chairman asks the Senators from a nominee’s home state to submit a blue slip expressing their support or opposition. The consequences have varied over time, depending on who the chairman has been. Leahy’s practice has been to not hold a hearing unless both senators submit their blue slips saying they support letting the committee process the application. As Senator Leahy points out

The Constitution requires presidents to seek both the “advice and consent” of the Senate in appointing judges to lifetime posts on the federal courts. … When senators return this paper, it is proof that the senators elected to represent that state were consulted and the nominee is likely to be confirmed.

Leahy states he “cannot recall a single judicial nominee being confirmed over the objection of his or her home-state senators,” and affirms the importance of home-state support in moving the process forward.

But Leahy also acknowledges that the “judicial confirmation process in the Senate has grown increasingly difficult,” and that Senate practices that bring principles of the Constitution to life do need “ongoing evaluation to make sure they work as intended. And he reiterates that he “would not rule out proceeding with a nomination if the blue slip is abused.”

Indeed, since his election, President Obama has routinely sought the advice of senators through the judicial nominations process. It has been a hallmark of his presidency. But too many Republicans have refused to engage in a cooperative process, instead seeking the authority to pick the nominee themselves, even if it is someone the president would oppose. When that happens, no nomination is made. Other times, the senators withhold the blue slip indefinitely, often refusing to give a reason why, and sometimes even after they themselves recommended the nominee they are now blocking. The result of this abuse has been the worsening of a serious judicial vacancy crisis.

Chairman Leahy has stressed the importance of blue slips in showing that senators have been consulted by the White House. Taking heed of Leahy’s words, Republicans should be wary of continuing the abuse of the blue slip process to block judicial confirmations. Their continued use of this “silent, unaccountable veto” is a detriment to the judicial process. As GOP obstruction continues through withholding of blue slips despite substantial consultation, judicial nominations grow more cumbersome, and the impracticality of this part of the process becomes clearer.
 

PFAW

Jamie Raskin and Marge Baker Unpack the McCutcheon Case

Two days after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, PFAW Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin and Executive Vice President Marge Baker held a telebriefing with PFAW members to discuss the case – and what Americans can do about it.

Jamie noted that with the fall of the overall, or "aggregate," contribution limits, we are now past the midpoint in right-wing efforts to dismantle our nation's campaign finance laws. We've seen the same five conservative Justices strike down efforts to promote viable public financing of campaigns and open the door to unlimited corporate expenditures to affect elections. Left untouched – so far – are base limits (the cap on the amount you can give to a particular candidate) and laws against coordinating certain political expenditures.

Jamie also criticized the Court's absurdly cramped reading of the First Amendment, such that campaign finance laws can only be justified if they are intended to prevent real or perceived "quid pro quo" corruption, which is essentially bribery. Perhaps the next question for the Roberts Court will be whether any campaign contribution limits can be upheld as long as there are bribery laws on the books.

Marge Baker was also on the call, fielding questions from PFAW members, several of whom had participated in the rallies nationwide that were held on Wednesday in response to the ruling. A couple of major themes kept coming up:

  • Efforts to mitigate these rulings by legislation or regulation and more comprehensive efforts to reverse them completely by constitutional amendment are complementary. As people organize to advocate for an amendment, they also create the political landscape needed to enact the remedial provisions.
  • When you vote for president and senator, you are casting a vote that will determine who sits on our nation's courts. McCutcheon may have been issued this week, but it was set in motion by the elections that allowed those five conservative justices to be nominated and confirmed.
  • The issue is much greater than whether campaign finance laws address "quid pro quo" corruption. The issue is the health of our democracy. When a tiny elite of powerful, super-wealthy individuals have an outsized role in selecting and influencing our elected officials, drowning out the interests of everyone else, this poses a grave danger to our democracy – a danger that Americans around the country are increasingly recognizing and doing something about.

Listen to call here:

Add your voice to the movement to get big money out of our elections here.

For more information on what you can do to help preserve our democracy, check out our Government By the People activist toolkit.



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PFAW

Applying McCutcheon's Logic to Voter ID Laws

The Chief Justice's opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC striking down aggregate campaign contribution limits dismisses several scenarios put forward to describe how funds can be rerouted to bypass the existing base limits on contributions:

The dissent concludes by citing three briefs for the proposition that, even with the aggregate limits in place, individuals "have transferred large sums of money to specific candidates" in excess of the base limits. But the cited sources do not provide any real-world examples of circumvention of the base limits along the lines of the various hypotheticals.

The dearth of FEC prosecutions, according to the dissent, proves only that people are getting away with it. And the violations that surely must be out there elude detection "because in the real world, the methods of achieving circumvention are more subtle and more complex" than the hypothetical examples. This sort of speculation, however, cannot justify the substantial intrusion on First Amendment rights at issue in this case. (emphasis added)

Yet exactly this sort of speculation is routinely used by the far right to justify the substantial intrusion on the right to vote caused by strict photo ID laws. As Hans von Spakovsky and Peter McGinley recently wrote for the Heritage Foundation:

A favorite claim made by those who oppose voter ID is that voter fraud is a rare occurrence. On the surface, this argument may have some appeal, because it is not very often that huge voter fraud conspiracies dominate the national headlines. But, by its very nature, voter fraud is hard to detect.

Unfortunately, despite the absence of evidence of the in-person voter fraud they allegedly are intended to prevent, a number of voter ID laws have been upheld despite their obvious impact on the right to vote.

If only the courts were as solicitous of the right to vote in elections as they are of the right to purchase them. The "Money In / Voters Out" approach to elections has got to stop.

PFAW Foundation

In McCutcheon Decision, Talk of Constituents Seems Out of Place

Chief Justice Roberts caps his opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC by waxing eloquently about the need to ensure that elected officials are responsive to the people. This and other cases have described campaign contributions as a way to promote such responsiveness. But considering that this case is about a non-constituent buying influence in elections across the country, the passage's repeated references to constituents seems strangely out of place:

For the past 40 years, our campaign finance jurisprudence has focused on the need to preserve authority for the Government to combat corruption, without at the same time compromising the political responsiveness at the heart of the democratic process, or allowing the Government to favor some participants in that process over others. As Edmund Burke explained in his famous speech to the electors of Bristol, a representative owes constituents the exercise of his "mature judgment," but judgment informed by "the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents." Constituents have the right to support candidates who share their views and concerns. Representatives are not to follow constituent orders, but can be expected to be cognizant of and responsive to those concerns. Such responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.  (emphasis added, internal citations removed)

Shaun McCutcheon – whose contributions are at issue in this case – told the Court that he wanted to make contributions of $1,776 to each of more than two dozen different congressional candidates (as well as to various party committees) during the 2012 election cycle. It seems unlikely that he could have been a constituent of more than two dozen different members of Congress.

Obviously, people have a First Amendment right to participate in congressional races outside of where they live. But a stirring paragraph about political responsiveness to constituents hardly seems appropriate in a case that is all about political responsiveness to non-constituents.

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court's McCutcheon Decision is Great News for Billionaires

The Supreme Court's McCutcheon opinion, released this morning, is another 5-4 body blow to our democracy. To justify striking down limits that cap aggregate campaign contributions during a single election cycle, the Roberts Court ignores the way the world really works and makes it far more difficult to justify much-needed protections against those who would purchase our elections and elected officials.

Americans are deeply concerned that control of our elections and our government is being usurped by a tiny sliver of extremely wealthy and powerful individuals (and the corporations they control). That is not the democracy that our Constitution established and protects. The enormous impact of money in politics can destroy a democracy, undermining its foundations by disconnecting elected officials from the people they are supposed to serve and eroding the trust of the people in their system of government.

But the Roberts Court today stressed that campaign contributions can be justified under the First Amendment only if they address "quid pro quo" corruption – i.e. bribery – despite contrary pre-Citizens United holdings with a broader and more realistic vision. A democratic system rotting at its core – a government of, by, and for the wealthy – is not corrupt in their eyes.

If a wealthy person gives millions of dollars to a party (distributed to the party's multiple candidates and PACs across the country), he clearly exercises enormous influence over the laws that get passed. What the voters want becomes far less relevant, because it's the billionaire whose money is vital to getting elected. A government where elected officials allow a few plutocrats to have enormous access and influence over their policies is not an indication of a healthy government of, by, and for the people.

As Justice Breyer write in his McCutcheon dissent:

Today a majority of the Court overrules this holding [Buckley's 1976 upholding of aggregate limits]. It is wrong to do so. Its conclusion rests upon its own, not a record-based, view of the facts. Its legal analysis is faulty: It misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign. Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n, 558 U. S. 310 (2010), today's decision eviscerates our Nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.

Americans are organizing around the country to restore our democracy in light of Citizens United and other dangerous court opinions. Today's McCutcheon opinion gives us another reason to rally.

Last year, People For the American Way Foundation released an analysis of McCutcheon within the context of the Supreme Court's past rulings on campaign finance.

PFAW Foundation

Harry Reid Moving Judicial Nominations Forward, Despite Republican Obstruction

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed cloture yesterday on the nomination of John B. Owens to a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—one that has been declared a judicial emergency and which has been vacant for almost 10 years. This moves forward the Senate judicial confirmations process that has been relentlessly slowed down by GOP obstruction. In an atmosphere of constant delays, it is commendable that Sen. Reid is taking action to get nominees confirmed, especially circuit court nominees.

Because of obstruction by Senate Republicans, nominations for the circuit court have been made particularly cumbersome. As we explained last month, if Senators refuse to provide “unanimous consent” to schedule a vote, Sen. Reid is forced to file a cloture petition to allow a yes or no vote on the nominee. Once cloture is invoked,  Senate rules allow the minority to insist on “post-cloture debate”— up to 30 hours for circuit court nominees.

With six circuit court nominees now on the Senate calendar, (including the most recent addition, Fifth Circuit nominee Gregg Costa, who was recommended unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning) and more in the pipeline, Republicans can tie the Senate up for 180 hours of needless “post cloture debate” – that is weeks of floor time that could be spent doing something useful. Time is growing short to get them all confirmed by the end of the year. One easy answer is for Senate Republicans to forego their delaying tactics and permit the Senate to both confirm judicial nominees and perform the other important work waiting to be done. Until that happens, Sen. Reid should be applauded for pushing the process forward.

PFAW

A Commendably Speedy Process for a Vermont Judicial Recommendation

The senators of Vermont, and especially Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, have shown the country what an exemplary process for identifying potential district court judges looks like. Today, Leahy recommended Geoffrey Crawford to the White House as the next federal judge in Vermont.

Leahy and his colleague Sen. Bernard Sanders have moved quickly to ensure that Vermont individuals and businesses are not denied their right to a fully functioning federal court system:

  • January 15: It was announced in advance that a vacancy would be opening on June 15.
  • January 24: Sens. Leahy and Sanders announced the formation of a commission to recommend potential nominees. "The nine-member, nonpartisan panel consists of three commissioners named by Leahy, three by Sanders, and three by the Vermont Bar Association. Rep. [Peter] Welch will also have input during the selection process."
  • February 21: Applications were due to the commission.
  • March 10-11: The commission held interviews with seven people.
  • March 12: The commission announced two recommendations to the senators.
  • March 24: Sen. Leahy recommended Geoffrey Crawford to the president for nomination. (Under Vermont tradition, the senior senators of the president's party makes the recommendation.) Crawford is a current state Supreme Court justice with previous experience representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases, just the kind of background that enhances professional diversity on the bench and makes the federal judiciary stronger.

Just a little over two months after senators became aware of the vacancy and nearly three months before the vacancy actually becomes open, the White House has received a recommendation and can start the vetting process. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Leahy knows how important this is. Senators in Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado have also moved quickly to make timely recommendations for recent vacancies in their states.

Would that every senator did so.

PFAW