Sen. Joe Manchin Expresses his Support for Getting Money out of Politics

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is the latest politician to call out the negative impact big money has on the political process. In an interview this week with Public News Service, Senator Manchin said:

I've watched people being afraid to make a vote because they're afraid of how much money is going to be spent against them. How much time, effort and money they'll need to defend themselves. And that's a sad scenario.

Manchin fears that the trend favoring big money will not come to an end anytime soon,

Billion-dollar presidential race, are you kidding me? In 2016 that'll be for starters. The country's going to the highest bidder, I believe. Or it's perceived to be going to the highest bidder. You're going to have a few people who are able to play the game and that'll be it.

That’s why Manchin supports the proposed constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics — the Democracy for All Amendment — as a way to put a limit on the distorting  influence of outsized spending by corporations and billionaires on our democracy. In Manchin’s words,

Someone has to call a truce here. Get some civility back, and some common sense. There has to be transparency. We've got to put a cap on this. Maybe we could get some Republican support to where we might have a chance of getting it.

Until recently, campaign finance reform proposals have been bipartisan efforts. The first campaign finance regulations, like the Tillman Act of 1907 that banned corporate campaign contributions, were passed with Republican leadership. More recently the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act was passed with the bipartisan leadership of former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

It is time to have a government that promotes democracy for all rather than democracy for the few. The Democracy for All constitutional amendment cosponsored by Manchin advancing in the Senate is a common sense proposal that would help us take back our democracy from billionaires and corporations. Senator Manchin is right to call for such an amendment.


A Small, But Important, Step Towards Common Sense in Judicial Confirmation Process

Last week, in advance of a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on six Arizona district court nominees, senior legislative counsel Paul Gordon asked if Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain would be able to convince their Republican colleagues to break what has become their practice of routinely delaying nominees’ votes. Since 2009, only five of President Obama’s judicial nominees had been allowed to have their committee votes cast without delay. Gordon urged the Senators to forgo this obstruction, especially given the enormous caseload in Arizona that is impeding the operation of the Arizona district court that has 6 of its 13 seats vacant. 

Yesterday, in a departure from their practice, the Committee actually voted on the nominees. 91. 5 KJAZZ reported:

“The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way called this a step toward fixing the judicial vacancy rate in Arizona, but noted that there are 28 people awaiting confirmation ahead of these nominees.”

Executive vice president Marge Baker also commented on the turn of events in an interview with Cronkite News:

“It wasn’t sustainable to keep delaying this process, and it seems that Arizona senators finally heeded reason. Arizona has had a terrible judicial vacancy rate. This is an important step towards fixing it.”

This was a relief for the state of Arizona, as well as a nice change of pace for Senate Republicans. But as a judicial vacancy crisis continues in Arizona and across the country, the work is far from over.


Flake and McCain's Next Steps for AZ Nominees

Yesterday, Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake persuaded Judiciary Committee Republicans not to delay a scheduled committee vote on six nominees from their home state. Chairman Leahy noted that the vote would not have happened but for McCain and Flake's efforts. The senators made their colleagues understand that six of their state's 13 federal district judgeships are vacant, and that the crisis is so serious that the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has officially designated all six vacancies as judicial emergencies.

Now the question is whether they will try to get that message across to all the other Senate Republicans.

In ordinary times, having been confirmed by the Judiciary Committee, the six Arizona nominees would quickly get a confirmation vote on the Senate floor. But since Republicans are blocking votes on any and all judicial nominations, the Arizonans find themselves at the back of a ridiculously long line, with 28 nominees ahead of them.

So before anyone can even think about those vacancies in Arizona getting filled, the Senate will have to conduct 28 cloture votes to break 28 filibusters. This is an extremely time-consuming process, because Senate rules allow Republicans to demand hours of "post-cloture debate" before a confirmation vote. Absent Republican willingness to waive the rule (which we have not seen so far), each circuit court nominee will take 30 hours of the Senate's time for needless post-cloture debate. For district court nominees, the same 30-hour rule that usually applies to them has been reduced to two hours under a temporary rule that expires at the end of the 113th Congress (in early January 2015).

That's nearly 200 hours of time-wasting "post-cloture debate" before the Senate can finally get to the Arizona nominees. Assuming 40-hour workweeks, that's five wasted weeks of doing nothing else. Of course, the Senate does actually have other items on its agenda, so absent a lifting of the GOP's obstruction, the Arizona seats will remain empty for many more months.

But it doesn't have to be that way. McCain and Flake have already demonstrated their willingness to exercise their influence with those of their GOP colleagues who serve on the Judiciary Committee. Now the question is whether they will try to persuade the rest of their colleagues to end the blockade and eliminate the bottleneck so the Senate can get to the Arizona seats in a timely manner.


Will McCain and Flake Let GOP Obstruct AZ Nominees?

Next Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on six district court nominees in Arizona. Odds are it won't happen.

That's because delaying the committee vote is a small but reliably constant way that Senate Republicans delay and obstruct all of President Obama's judicial nominees. Committee rules let the minority have a vote "held over" until the next meeting without providing a reason. That next meeting is often a week later, but when it comes before a recess, the delay can be significant. As part of the massive escalation in obstruction that Republicans launched the moment President Obama took office, they have routinely held over nominees, even for completely unopposed nominees. In fact, only five Obama judicial nominees have actually been allowed by the GOP to have their committee vote held as scheduled. The last time they let one through on time was in 2011, and that was for an Arizona nominee to replace the murdered Judge John Roll.

Perhaps they will make another Arizona exception this time. Arizona has 13 federal district judgeships, but six of them are vacant. That is a substantial vacancy rate. And because of the high caseload in Arizona courts, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has formally designated all six of the vacancies as "judicial emergencies."

Sen. Jeff Flake, himself a member of the Judiciary Committee, told his colleagues last month how desperately the people in his state need these vacancies filled: "Talking to those serving on the bench in Arizona now, they're happy to see the caseload probably cut in half" when the six nominees are confirmed. Sen. McCain has also stressed the urgency: "The recent judicial vacancies in Arizona have created an unsustainable situation for the Court and are a serious impediment to the administration of justice for the people of Arizona. The need to fill these vacancies is critical as the District of Arizona ranks as one of the top ten busiest district courts in the country."

The six nominees were originally scheduled for a committee vote on February 13, but the hearing was cancelled due to a snowstorm. Then came a week's recess. Now they are scheduled for February 27, next Thursday. Since this will be the first meeting of the committee with the Arizona nominees on the voting agenda, Republicans can be expected to needlessly request that the vote be held over … unless McCain and Flake can convince them not to obstruct.

Since Flake is on the committee, eyes will be particularly focused on him. Can he convince his GOP colleagues not to prolong the crisis in his state by delaying the vote? Will he even try?


Hearing on Arizona Nominees Shows Why Courts Matter

Some common threads ran through the comments of senators and nominees alike at yesterday's confirmation hearing for six district court nominees in Arizona: The importance of the courts to the American people, and the critical role of experiential and personal diversity among those who serve on the bench.

Sen. Mazie Hirono opened the Judiciary Committee hearing by noting that "our federal district and appellate courts hear tens of thousands of cases each year, ranging from criminal prosecutions to complex environmental and consumer protection litigation. But in order for Americans to receive swift access to justice, these vacancies must be filled." That is especially so in Arizona, where six of 13 judgeships are vacant, where all six current vacancies have been designated as judicial emergencies, and where it's been reported that more than 50 outside judges were needed last year to help the courts keep up with their work.

The six Arizona nominees are:

  • Rosemary Márquez, a Latina with extensive experience representing indigent clients in criminal courts unable to afford legal representation;
  • Diane Humetewa, who if confirmed would become the only Native American federal judge currently serving, the third in U.S. history, and the first woman ever;
  • Steven Logan, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who would become only the second African American federal district judge in the state's history;
  • John Joseph Tuchi, who worked as the U.S. Attorney's Tribal Liaison and (quoting from the National Congress of American Indians' statement of support) "demonstrated his knowledge of federal Indian law and his commitment to the critical role of tribes in the American family of governments;"
  • Douglas Rayes, who has presided over a variety of types of cases for more than a decade as a state judge; and
  • James Soto, who would also bring more than a decade of experience as a state judge to the federal bench.

At the hearing, Sen. John McCain noted that Márquez's "extensive experience in border districts and her Hispanic heritage will be invaluable assets to the federal court in Tucson, where a large portion of the docket is devoted to immigration-related issues." Regarding Humetewa's historic nomination, McCain noted that "the Arizona bench would be enriched by a member who reflects the community it serves." He said that Soto's "ability to understand the very real implications of immigration law on those who live and work on the Mexico-Arizona border will be of great value to the federal bench in Arizona."

Nominee Steven Logan observed that for those whose cases are being heard, "whether it's a civil case or a criminal case, sometimes it's the most important thing that's going on in their lives." He also noted the critical role judges play in preserving the rule of law, citing his experience in Iraq and Afghanistan: "I've seen what happens in a country – two countries in particular – when there is no rule of law that's active."

Sen. Jeff Flake praised the six nominees' "diversity of education and experience that will serve the court well and the state well." He also noted how desperately Arizona needs these vacancies filled: "Talking to those serving on the bench in Arizona now, they're happy to see the caseload probably cut in half" when the six nominees are confirmed.

Fortunately, Flake and McCain can help ensure quick confirmations. Since Flake is on the Judiciary Committee, perhaps he will persuade his GOP colleagues not to do what they have done with nearly every other Obama judicial nominee: demand a delay in the committee vote once it is scheduled, with no explanation or apology. This is a good time to end this obstructive practice.

And even before the Judiciary Committee advances the nominees to the full Senate, both senators have an opportunity to make a swift confirmation possible. Right now, there are 29 judicial nominees waiting for a floor vote, many of them who could and should have been confirmed last year. Their confirmation would reduce the current vacancy rate by nearly a third. Another three nominees will probably join them next week. So the Arizona nominees will be at the back of a very, very, long line.

If McCain and Flake want to help Arizona's overworked courts, they need to push Mitch McConnell to allow quick votes on all the nominees who are already being stalled on the floor.


Why Are Arizona’s Senators Holding Up Hearings on Arizona Judges?

Arizona's federal district courts are currently operating with six of their thirteen judgeships not only vacant but also designated as judicial emergencies, so you'd think that the state's senators would want to expedite the process of confirming five nominees to fill those vacancies. But you'd be wrong.

It turns out that far from ensuring that Arizona's half-empty district courts are fully staffed, either Sen. John McCain or Sen. Jeff Flake or both are keeping all five of President Obama's nominees for Arizona's courts from even getting preliminary hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And because of the secrecy of the so-called "blue-slip" process that is delaying these nominations, we don't know which senator is holding up the nominees or even why they are doing so.

Here's what we do know: The Judiciary Committee today announced its agenda for this week's hearing on federal judicial nominees, and conspicuously absent for the second consecutive week were the five Arizona nominees whom the president nominated two months ago. Yet nominees who were named after the Arizonans have been scheduled for hearings.

The committee usually takes up judicial nominations in the order they were made, so when nominees are skipped, it's generally because their home-state senators are using the "blue slip" process to gum up the works. Chairman Patrick Leahy's practice is to not allow a hearing on any judicial nomination until both home-state senators submit a "blue slip" signaling their approval for the process to start….a system that Republican senators have exploited to slow slow down and even torpedoed President Obama's judicial nominees.

So do Senators McCain and Flake have problems with President Obama's five nominees to fill district court vacancies in Arizona? Ordinarily, it would seem unlikely, since these nominations were the result of months of consultations between Sen. McCain and the White House.

President Obama nominated the first of the five Arizona nominees, Rosemary Márquez, way back in 2011, but then-Sen. Jon Kyl blocked her by refusing to submit his "blue slip." When Kyl was replaced by Jeff Flake, Sen. McCain took the lead on judicial nominations in the state, and he, too, blocked Márquez until he could make a deal with the White House to get additional nominees he supported onto the court. In fact, here is what Sen. McCain said in September when, at his suggestion, President Obama nominated Diane Humetewa, Steven Logan, Douglas Rayes, and John Tuchi to join Márquez:

The nominees to serve on the United States District Court for the District of Arizona have demonstrated devotion to public service and commitment to justice, and I believe they are uniquely qualified to address the legal issues facing our state. The recent judicial vacancies in Arizona have created an unsustainable situation for the Court and are a serious impediment to the administration of justice for the people of Arizona. The need to fill these vacancies is critical as the District of Arizona ranks as one of the top ten busiest district courts in the country. I urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider these five very capable nominees as soon as possible and allow the full Senate to swiftly confirm them as the district court judges for the District of Arizona.  [emphasis added]

What Sen. McCain said two months ago was right: Arizonans need these judgeships filled yesterday. Arizona has six vacant district court seats out of a total of 12 authorized judgeships (plus a 13th temporary judgeship). All six have been designated as judicial emergencies by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, meaning the caseload is so pressing that the work just isn't getting done in a timely manner: Individuals and businesses are in effect being denied their day in court. In fact, the situation is so bad that the Judicial Conference of the United States has asked Congress to create ten additional judgeships in the state: So even if the six current vacancies were filled today, Arizona still needs another ten judges to ensure that justice is done throughout the state. In the interests of Arizonans, the Senate Judiciary Committee should take up and consider these nominations as quickly as possible.

And yet it isn't happening. For the second week in a row, the Judiciary Committee will be hearing from nominees who were nominated after the five Arizonans – including Diane Humetewa, who would become the nation's only serving Native American federal judge.

It looks like McCain and Flake have withheld their blue slips. Have they found a problem with the nominees who McCain recommended and previously supported and who Sen. Flake has said nothing against? Or are they doing the bidding of someone else, perhaps Judiciary Committee senior Republican Chuck Grassley or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom have used every procedure in the book to slow down just about any judicial nomination coming out of the Obama White House?

With fewer times available for hearings this year, if the Arizona nominees don't get their hearings this week, they risk being put off until next year.

And for what? We don't know, because Senators McCain and Flake haven't said a thing.


As Washington Begins Debate on Gun Violence Bills, National Responses Vary

As the U.S. Senate prepares to consider a package of gun violence prevention proposals this week, Republicans face a choice: whether to side with the vast majority of Americans who want common sense gun regulation, or with the radical pro-gun fringe.

Today, a group of far-right, NRA-backed Senators are threatening to use the filibuster to shut down the debate on gun safety measures backed by over 90 percent of Americans. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this week, Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee pledged to “oppose any legislation” that seeks to expand background checks or crack down on interstate gun trafficking. Joining them in the letter are eleven other Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have rebuked these blind filibuster threats as extreme and unnecessary. Top GOP Senators Lindsey Graham, Tom Coburn, and Johnny Isakson have all called on fellow conservatives to allow a vote on gun safety legislation. On Sunday’s Face the Nation, Senator John McCain joined in questioning the Republicans who have threatened to filibuster gun legislation they haven’t even seen yet:

"I don’t understand it. The purpose of the United States Senate is to debate and to vote and to let the people know where we stand,” McCain said.

While some legislators continue to impede progress on this issue, others, such as Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and his GOP colleague Senator Pat Toomey have renewed efforts to spearhead a bipartisan agreement on background checks. Yesterday, the two senators announced an agreement on a deal that expands background checks to gun shows and internet purchases.

Meanwhile, President Obama traveled to Connecticut on Monday to remind Americans how important their voice is as the gun debate unfolds. While there, he blasted the efforts by some Senate Republicans to shut down the discussion:

"They’re not just saying they’ll vote no on ideas that almost all Americans support,” Obama said. “They’re saying they’ll do everything they can to even prevent any votes on these provisions. They’re saying your opinion doesn’t matter, and that’s not right.”

The obstructionist tactics used by the far-right senators are sadly part of a larger national backlash to discussions about common-sense gun regulations. Last month, Montana's legislature passed a bill that would have forbidden state law enforcement from cooperating with federal officials in enforcing a ban on semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines, should such bans ever become law.

Bills in other states seek to outright nullify federal gun laws, including those passed in the Wyoming House and Kentucky Senate. These bills aren’t just terrible for safety, they’re also unconstitutional.

Luckily, there are still those who are willing to stand up to these mindless obstructionist tactics from the right. Late last week, Montana Governor Steve Bullock vetoed the state’s proposed bill, calling it “unnecessary political theater that would not meaningfully protect our Second Amendment rights.”

Other governors have gone a step further in standing up against right-wing intimidation by calling for their state’s gun violence prevention laws to be reinforced. Last week, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed the nation’s most far-reaching gun violence prevention bill. The bill, approved by bipartisan votes in both chambers, adds more than 100 weapons to the state’s ban on assault weapons, limits the capacity of ammunition magazines and requires background checks for all weapon sales, including at gun shows:

“This is a profoundly emotional day for everyone…when 92% of Americans agree that every gun sale should be subject to a background check, there is no excuse not to make it federal law” Malloy said.

In recent months, legislatures in Colorado , Maryland, and New York have all advanced their own measures to combat gun violence. Collectively these states have demonstrated the courage to stand up to the bullying tactics of the big gun lobby and their allies on the far right. These states have shown the effectiveness of speaking out against the radical agenda coming from right-wing politicians on the state and national level and have sent a message to Washington that action needs to happen.

The last thing our nation needs now is obstructionist tactics leading to watered down, ineffective legislation. We need a meaningful, national response to gun violence in America. But for that to happen, Republicans are going to need to stand up against the radical pro-gun Right, and for common sense.


Obama Condemns Filibuster of His DC Circuit Court Nominee

President Obama condemned today’s filibuster of Caitlin Halligan to the DC Circuit, the nation’s second most important court after the Supreme Court. He pointed out the hypocrisy of certain Republican senators who have abandoned the principles they claimed to have when George W. Bush was president, citing the 2005 "Gang of 14" agreement:

In the past, filibusters of judicial nominations required "extraordinary circumstances," and a Republican Senator who was part of this agreement articulated that only an ethics or qualification issue – not ideology – would qualify. Ms. Halligan has always practiced law with the highest ethical ideals, and her qualifications are beyond question. Furthermore, her career in public service and as a law enforcement lawyer, serving the citizens of New York, is well within the mainstream.

All three Republican members of the "Gang of 14" who are still in the Senate joined the filibuster to prevent a fair vote on Halligan: Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain.

President Obama went on:

My judicial nominees wait more than three times as long on the Senate floor to receive a vote than my predecessor’s nominees. The effects of this obstruction take the heaviest toll on the D.C. Circuit, considered the Nation’s second-highest court, which now has only seven active judges and four vacancies.

It is critical to fill all four of these vacancies as soon as possible.


Diverse Ways to Block Women Judges

While President Obama continues to nominate qualified men and women who would diversify the federal bench, Senate Republicans have shown their commitment to a different kind of diversity: a diversity of methods to block those nominees: Mitch McConnell spearheads the obstruction on the Senate floor, while Chuck Grassley is in charge of committee obstruction. Perhaps least visible is obstruction through abuse of the “blue slip” process, in which nominees are not scheduled for hearings until both of the nominee's home state senators consent.

Since the spring, four nominees have been held up by Republicans withholding their blue slips. All four have something in common: They are women.

  • Jill Pryor – nominated in February, blocked by Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson
  • Rosemary Márquez – nominated in June 2011, blocked by Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl
  • Elissa Cadish – nominated in February, blocked by Nevada Sen. Dean Heller
  • Shelly Dick – nominated in April, blocked by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter

Earlier this week, it was reported that Vitter has finally ended his obstruction, which he initiated because he hoped to keep the vacancy open for a President Romney to nominate someone else, presumably a conservative. With President Obama having won re-election, Vitter submitted his blue slip, but the delay will likely keep Dick from being confirmed by the end of this year.

President Obama has made a concerted effort to diversify the federal bench, as shown by the two slates of nominees he has made since the election. His task is made that much harder when qualified women are blocked before they can even get a hearing.

Yesterday, three more women were blocked, this time by Senator Grassley, who – without explanation – blocked Chairman Leahy from holding a vote to advance the nominations of Pamela Ki Mai Chen, Sheri Polster Chappell, and Katherine Polk Failla to the floor.

And two women are among those who have been languishing on the Senate floor for many months, waiting for a confirmation vote. They are Second Circuit nominee Patty Shwartz (waiting for a floor vote since March), and New York district court nominee Lorna Schofield (waiting since July).

President Obama's nominees show that he recognizes that our nation is strengthened when our judges reflect our nation's diversity. Unfortunately, the only commitment to diversity we see from Republicans is in the array of methods they use to obstruct those nominees.


Republican Obstruction Impedes Efforts to Diversify the Federal Bench

Senate Republicans' ongoing obstruction of President Obama's judicial nominees is having a disproportionate impact on those who are women and people of color. A remarkable 64% of federal judges nominated by Obama are women and people of color, a rate that is double that of George W. Bush.

We often talk about the large number of nominees (currently 16) who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee and have been waiting for a vote on the Senate floor. But there are also 19 nominees who are still being considered by the committee, and with more than four months before the election, there is more than enough time to hold confirmation votes on all of them.

This group of 19 exemplify the president's commitment to diversity: Twelve of them are women or people of color. Lorna Schofield could become the first person of Filipino descent to serve as an Article III judge in American history; her committee vote was scheduled for yesterday but got sidetracked due to the Supreme Court's healthcare decision. U.S. Magistrate Fernando Olguin, a former education program director at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, was the first in his family to attend and graduate from college; he testified before the Judiciary Committee earlier this week and is now awaiting a vote. Troy Nunley, who was born in San Francisco's Hunter's Point housing projects, has been a Sacramento County Superior Court judge for the past decade; he was nominated last week to fill a vacancy in the Eastern District of California.

Unfortunately, several qualified nominees have fallen victim to Republican obstruction via abuse of the "blue slip" system, in which the committee will take no action on a nomination unless the nominee's home state senators consent. Incredibly, of the four nominees with "blue slip" problems, all four are women:

  • Shelly Dick – blocked by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter
  • Rosemary Márquez – blocked by Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl
  • Elissa Cadish – blocked by Nevada Sen. Dean Heller
  • Jill Pryor – blocked by Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson

Among the nominees now pending on the floor, all three who were subject to a party-line vote are women or people of color:

  • Patty Shwartz – woman nominee for the Third Circuit
  • Gershwin Drain – African American district court nominee from Michigan
  • Brian Davis – African American district court nominee from Florida

President Obama's efforts to end the judicial vacancy crisis and place a diverse, highly qualified group of jurists in our nation's courtrooms have been stymied from day one by Senate Republicans. Every person he has nominated deserves a yes-or-no vote before Election Day.