Obama to Senate: Stop Playing Games with the Courts

On Wednesday night, the Senate left for recess without confirming a single one of the 23 judicial nominees who had been waiting for a vote, most of them for several months. The GOP blocked the majority of these nominees not because of ideology—19 were approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee—but just for the sake of obstruction. President Obama responded yesterday with this letter to Senate leaders:

Dear Senator Reid, Senator McConnell, Senator Leahy, and Senator Sessions:

I write to express my concern with the pace of judicial confirmations in the United States Senate. Yesterday, the Senate recessed without confirming a single one of the 23 Federal judicial nominations pending on the Executive Calendar. The Federal judiciary and the American people it serves suffer the most from this unprecedented obstruction. One in eight seats on the Federal bench sits empty, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has declared that many of those vacancies constitute judicial emergencies. Despite the urgent and pressing need to fill these important posts, a minority of Senators has systematically and irresponsibly used procedural maneuvers to block or delay confirmation votes on judicial nominees – including nominees that have strong bipartisan support and the most distinguished records. The minority has even been blocking non-controversial nominees – a dramatic shift from past practice that could cause a crisis in the judiciary.

The Judiciary Committee has promptly considered my judicial nominees. Nonetheless, judicial confirmation rates in this Congress have reached an all-time low. At this point in the prior Administration (107th Congress), the Senate had confirmed 61% of the President’s judicial nominations. By contrast, the Senate has confirmed less than half of the judicial nominees it has received in my Administration. Nominees in the 107th Congress waited less than a month on the floor of the Senate before a vote on their confirmation. The men and women whom I have nominated who have been confirmed to the Courts of Appeals waited five times longer and those confirmed to the District Courts waited three times longer for final votes.

Right now, 23 judicial nominees await simple up-or-down votes. All of these nominees have the strongest backing from their home-state Senators – a fact that usually counsels in favor of swift confirmation, rather than delay. Sixteen of those men and women received unanimous support in the Judiciary Committee. Nearly half of the nominees on the floor were selected for seats that have gone without judges for anywhere between 200 and 1,600 days. But despite these compelling circumstances, and the distinguished careers led by these candidates, these nominations have been blocked.

Judge Albert Diaz, the well-respected state court judge I nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, has waited 245 days for an up-or-down vote – more than 8 months. Before becoming a judge, Diaz served for over 10 years in the United States Marine Corps as an attorney and military judge. If confirmed, he would be the first Hispanic to sit on the Fourth Circuit. The seat to which he was nominated has been declared a judicial emergency. Judge Diaz has the strong support of both of North Carolina’s Senators. Senator Burr has publicly advocated for Judge Diaz to get a final vote by the Senate. And just before the August recess, Senator Hagan went to the floor of the Senate to ask for an up-or-down vote for Judge Diaz. Her request was denied.

We are seeing in this case what we have seen in all too many others: resistance to highly qualified candidates who, if put to a vote, would be unanimously confirmed, or confirmed with virtually no opposition. For example, Judge Beverly Martin waited 132 days for a floor vote – despite being strongly backed by both of Georgia’s Republican Senators. When the Senate finally held a vote, she was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit unanimously. Jane Stranch was recently confirmed by an overwhelming majority of the Senate, after waiting almost 300 days for a final vote. Even District Court nominees have waited 3 or more months for confirmation votes – only to be confirmed unanimously.

Proceeding this way will put our judiciary on a dangerous course, as the Department of Justice projects that fully half of the Federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020 if we continue on the current pace of judicial confirmations. The real harm of this political game-playing falls on the American people, who turn to the courts for justice. By denying these nominees a simple up-or- down vote, the Republican leadership is undermining the ability of our courts to deliver justice to those in need. All Americans depend on having well-qualified men and women on the bench to resolve important legal matters – from working mothers seeking timely compensation for their employment discrimination claims to communities hoping for swift punishment for perpetrators of crimes to small business owners seeking protection from unfair and anticompetitive practices.

As a former Senator, I have the greatest respect for the Senate’s role in providing advice and consent on judicial nominations. If there is a genuine concern about the qualifications of judicial nominees, that is a debate I welcome. But the consistent refusal to move promptly to have that debate, or to confirm even those nominees with broad, bipartisan support, does a disservice to the greatest traditions of this body and the American people it serves. In the 107th Congress, the Judiciary Committee reported 100 judicial nominees, and all of them were confirmed by the Senate before the end of that Congress. I urge the Senate to similarly consider and confirm my judicial nominees.

Back in June, President Obama made a similar plea in a meeting with Senate GOP leaders, but apparently bipartisan cooperation on something as straight-forward as filling seats in the judiciary wasn’t on their list of priorities.

(I also want to point out that while the GOP is holding up most of the 23 stalled nominees for absolutely no reason, there are a handful of nominees who certain GOP senators actively oppose. We’ve explored some of the reasons for this opposition here and here and here.)
 

PFAW

GOP Blocks 20 Judicial Nominees, Rebuffs Goodwin Liu Again

Nine Democratic senators went to the Senate floor today to call for up-or-down votes on the confirmation of 20 federal judicial nominees, many of whom have been waiting months to be confirmed and several of whom passed out of the Judiciary Committee with little or no opposition from members of either party. The Senators who spoke on the floor today included Mark Udall (CO), Michael Bennet (CO), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Herb Kohl (WI), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Jack Reed (RI), Ben Cardin (MD), Tom Carper (DE), and Ted Kaufman (DE).

The explanation from Senator Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of the architects of the obstruction? "Things do not always go as smoothly as you would like."

Among the nominees Democratic senators sought votes on were several whose nomination sagas we've been following. There were Albert Diaz and James Wynn of North Carolina who would be be, respectively, the first Latino and fourth African American appointed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (and who garnered one no vote between the two of them in committee). There was John McConnell of Rhode Island, who has come under attack from the powerful lobbyists at the Chamber of Commerce because of his record of defending consumers in suits against large manufacturers. There was William Joseph Martinez, the Colorado judge who has come under attack for having sat on an advisory panel for the ACLU.

And then there was Goodwin Liu. Sen. Ben Cardin told a Netroots Nation panel last week that Liu's hearing with the Judiciary Committee was "one of the most impressive confirmation hearings we've ever had." Richard Painter, who served as a lawyer in the Bush White House, called him "a fine choice for the federal bench." Yet, inexplicably, Liu, a law professor at Berkeley who is respected by legal scholars across the political spectrum, has become a flash point for Republican obstruction.

It's time for the Senate GOP to stop stalling votes on these critical nominations and come clean about their true priorities for the courts.

Many thanks to the Senators who took to the floor today to shine a spotlight on this unprecedented and senseless obstruction.

 

PFAW

The GOP's Judicial Obstruction Stats

Yesterday, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina tried to convince the Senate to confirm two appeals court nominees from her state. The two nominees, Judges James Wynn and Albert Diaz, have no controversial baggage--each received near-unanimous bipartisan support from the Judiciary Committee.

The confirmation of Wynn and Diaz would also contribute to the Obama Administration’s effort to add diversity to a woefully un-diverse court system. Diaz would be the first Latino appointed to the Fourth Circuit, Wynn the fourth African American.

Wynn and Diaz have both been waiting 169 days—over five months— for a Senate vote.

But none other than Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor yesterday to block a vote on the two nominees. He freely admitted that his action had nothing to do with Wynn and Diaz themselves, but was rather a purely political retaliation against the president’s recess appointment of a Medicare and Medicaid administrator. That appointment was not only unrelated to Wynn and Diaz, but came after the two nominees had already been stalled for months on the Senate floor.

Watch the video of Hagan’s and McConnell’s exchange:


Using judicial nominees as political pawns—thereby leaving important vacancies in courts throughout the country and stalling efforts to put judges with diverse background on the bench—is a tactic that the Republican minority has been using with zeal.

We’ve been collecting statistics on Republican efforts to keep qualified judges from starting their jobs. Here’s the latest update:

Nominees waiting for confirmation: 21
Nominees who have been waiting for more than 90 days: 18
Average number of days since nominated: 161 (200 for circuit court nominees)
Average number of days waiting for a Senate floor vote: 90 (111 for circuit court nominees)
 

PFAW