With John Boehner’s decision to abandon his position as Speaker of the House, chances of a Republican-driven government shutdown beginning October 1 dwindled – and was averted today with only hours to spare. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have shown that they don’t need to shut down the government in order to sabotage the effective functioning of the part of the federal government that has a vital constitutional role in ensuring justice for all: the United States judicial system.
Without enough judges, our courts cannot function, and the American people cannot count on vindicating their rights in a court of law. Either despite or because of the harm it causes ordinary Americans, the Republican-controlled Senate has only confirmed six judges all year. In contrast, at this same point in 2007 (Bush’s seventh year), the newly-Democratic Senate had already confirmed 29 of his judicial nominees. With Senate Republicans obstructing the confirmation of judicial nominees at every step of the way, the number of vacancies has skyrocketed from 40 at the beginning of the year to 64 as of October 1, an increase of 60 percent. Judicial emergencies have jumped from 12 to 31 in the same time.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer recently took to the Senate floor, highlighting in particular three vacancies in his home state:
The lack of judges has real legal consequences. In the Western District of New York, Judge Skretny--on senior status--has admitted that he is encouraging all cases to settle in pretrial mediation in order to lower caseloads. Criminal trials are prioritized while civil trials languish in delay. The two retired judges, who are the only ones reading cases at the moment, are spending far less time on each individual case than they would under normal circumstances. And defendants may be inclined to settle, admit guilt, and take plea deals rather than wait out a lengthy trial process.
As many of my colleagues have said so eloquently, the harsh truth is that for these petitioners, companies, and communities, justice is being delayed and thus denied. And the same story line is playing out in courtrooms throughout the country. This is not how our judicial system is supposed to work, and it should be an easy problem to rectify.
Yesterday, Dick Durbin of Illinois stood up on the Senate floor and delivered an eloquent statement about the damage caused by obstructing votes on qualified nominees:
[P]eople are asking: When am I going to get my day in court? Well, you will not get your day in court until the new judge gets his day in the Senate. We don’t know when that might happen. There is no reason to delay these confirmation votes. These nominees would be confirmed with overwhelming support. … This is an important responsibility of the Senate. We should not neglect it. …
We could vote on [the many pending executive and judicial nominees] this afternoon. Are we holding off the vote because we are too busy on the Senate floor? If you are following the Senate, you know that is not the case. It is time for us to do our jobs so these nominees can do theirs.
And tying in to the Senate’s recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, Patrick Leahy of Vermont focused yesterday on several highly qualified Latino nominees being slow-walked by the GOP-controlled Senate:
These dedicated public servants are eager to serve, but they have been blocked by the Republican leadership’s virtual shutdown of the judicial confirmation process since they took over the majority in January. More than 8 months into this new Congress, the Republican leadership has allowed just six votes for judges. At this rate, the Senate this year will confirm the fewest number of judges in more than a half century. Luis Felipe Restrepo, Armando Bonilla, John Michael Vazquez, and Dax Lopez all deserve an up or down vote by this Senate.
Restrepo is President Obama’s nominee to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and would be the first Latino from Pennsylvania to ever serve on that court. Senator Leahy cited supportive statements for Restrepo made by Pennsylvania’s Republican senator, Pat Toomey. Yet Toomey, who has far more influence with GOP leadership than Democratic senators, has been noticeably silent in the face of Majority Leader McConnell’s refusal to schedule a confirmation vote for the nominee.
These Democratic senators clearly understand that courts play a vital role in making our legal rights real and enforceable. Perhaps Senate Republicans simply don’t understand that.
Or, more ominously, perhaps they do.