Patrick Leahy and This Year's Success on Judges

As we've noted, 2014 has been a year of striking success for judicial nominations, with the Senate confirming a total of 89 circuit and district judges this year. That's the most judges in a single year since 1994, when the Senate confirmed 99 of President Clinton's circuit and district court judges. And due to Republican obstruction, these were not "easy" votes, even though the vast majority of nominees were approved with little to no opposition. Except for 11 who were confirmed by voice vote in the closing minutes of the 113th Congress, Republicans required a cloture vote for every nominee and a roll-call confirmation vote for all but a few of them, meaning that every confirmation consumed a great deal of floor time. (In contrast, about 40% of George W. Bush's circuit and district court nominees were confirmed by unanimous consent or voice vote.)

This yearlong commitment to judges, especially toward the end when most senators just wanted to go home, greatly served the American people and the judicial system we all rely on to protect our rights and the rule of law. Majority Leader Reid rightly made this a priority.

But a special recognition goes to Patrick Leahy, the outgoing chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He and his staff worked hard to process nominees quickly and efficiently, even while Republicans sought to slow the process down for no reason (e.g., routinely insisting on delaying committee votes without need or explanation). Timely hearings and votes are a critical component of an efficient confirmation process. The 11 consensus nominees approved by voice vote at the very end of the 113th Congress were all approved by the Judiciary Committee during the lame duck, and three of them had their hearings at the beginning of the lame duck. This speaks to the chairman's commitment to filling the vacancies on our nation's courts.

But Leahy's contributions went far beyond the Judiciary Committee hearing room. He has regularly spoken out on the Senate floor on the importance of getting judges confirmed, exposing and condemning needless delaying tactics. He has spoken out in party caucus meetings and in one-on-one conversations with his Democratic colleagues. And he doesn't just speak in generalities: He is specific, always with an array of statistics at his command demonstrating his point.

So much of the work of the Senate goes on off camera, in the interactions among its members. Perhaps no one knows that better than Leahy, who has served in the Senate longer than anyone else there today. Our nation is reaping the benefit of his dedication and his talent, since the Senate has gotten the number of judicial vacancies down to below – well below, in fact – where they were when President Obama took office.

This year's success would not have happened without him.

PFAW

Ted Cruz Vows to Damage Texas Courts in Response to Obama's Immigration Action

In response to President Obama's upcoming action on immigration, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has vowed to retaliate by sabotaging the federal court system in his own state.

No, that's not how he phrased it, but that would be the impact of his vow. Yesterday in Politico, Cruz wrote how he thinks the Senate should respond to the president's policy decisions on immigration enforcement:

If the president announces executive amnesty, the new Senate majority leader who takes over in January should announce that the 114th Congress will not confirm a single nominee—executive or judicial—outside of vital national security positions, so long as the illegal amnesty persists.

While such a refusal to perform one of the basic functions of the Senate would harm the entire nation, the damage in Texas would be particularly severe. No state has more judicial vacancies than the Lone Star State. No state even comes close.

As of today, Texas is suffering from eleven current federal court vacancies, with another four known to be opening in the next few months. The White House has worked closely with Sens. Cruz and Cornyn to identify potential nominees, but progress has been slow: Only six of the vacancies even have nominees; three of these have not yet had their committee hearings.

But the other three – for the Eastern and Western Districts – advanced through the Judiciary Committee this morning and are now ready for a confirmation vote by the full Senate. All three would fill vacancies formally designated as judicial emergencies by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. Confirming them would be a good start at addressing the vacancy crisis in Texas.

And that's what is it: a crisis. As we wrote earlier this month in a Huffington Post piece entitled Lame Duck Opportunity and Obligation: Confirm Judges:

The situation is even more dire in Texas, where the Senate has a chance to fill three vacancies in the Eastern and Western Districts. The Western District judgeship has been vacant since 2008, and the Judicial Conference has asked for five new judgeships there to carry the load on top of filling all the existing vacancies. Chief Judge Fred Biery discussed the need for new judges last year, saying, "It would be nice to get some help. We are pedaling as fast as we can on an increasingly rickety bicycle." Judge David Ezra, formerly of Hawaii, explained why he was moving to Texas to hear cases in the Western District: "This is corollary to having a big wild fire in the Southwest Border states, and fire fighters from Hawaii going there to help put out the fire."

The Eastern District of Texas is in similar need of getting its vacancies filled during the lame duck: Of the nation's 94 federal districts, only two have had more weighted filings per judgeship than the Eastern District, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts' most recent statistics. Small wonder, then, that the Judicial Conference has asked for two new judgeships there: Even if every judgeship were filled, that just isn't enough. To make matters worse, two more judges in the Eastern District have announced their intention to retire or take senior status next year, making it all the more important to fill the current vacancies now.

Even if the three nominees are confirmed during the lame duck, as they should be, more vacancies in both of those districts will open up early next year. Texas would still have eight vacancies, a number that would rise to twelve in the next few months.

To express his fury at President Obama and rally his right-wing base, Cruz would work to make sure that all these vacancies remain unfilled, which would hurt a lot of innocent Texans.

PFAW

Welcome Back, Senate, It's Time to Get to Work

Today marks the beginning of the lame duck session of Congress, and the Senate has a lot to do this month and next to meet its basic constitutional obligations to ensure that the federal government is actually able to function. While that entails headline-grabbing matters like passing a spending resolution to keep the government open, it also entails confirming nominees to critically important executive and judicial positions. For instance, a confirmation vote on Surgeon General nominee Vivek Murthy, which has been delayed for months, is long overdue. The Senate also has time to fill vacancies at the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Education, among others.

And the Senate can and should vote on at least 24 district court judicial nominees. Sixteen district court nominees are already pending on the Senate floor, all of whom could have easily had a vote back in September, if not earlier. Another eight district court nominees are scheduled for committee approval tomorrow, although many people expect Republicans to demand a delay until next week.

But even with that committee delay, history shows there should be more than enough time in the next few weeks to confirm all of these district court nominees.

President George W. Bush's confirmed district nominees waited on average only a month after committee approval before getting a floor vote. In fact, half of Bush's district court judges waited only three weeks or less after committee approval, a figure that has plummeted to 2% for President Obama's district court judges. Treating Obama's nominees like Bush's would give the Senate plenty of time to do its job.

It's also worth noting that in the fall of 2008, at the twilight of the Bush presidency, the Democratic Senate still made a point of ensuring votes on his district court nominees. On September 26, 2008, the Senate confirmed by unanimous consent ten district court nominees who had been cleared by the Judiciary Committee only the day before. In fact, the Judiciary Committee had voted on them all within two weeks of their hearing, half of them within two days of their hearing. Republicans did not move to block or delay those nominees.

So don't let anyone tell you there isn't time for the Senate to confirm nominees during this lame duck session and still get its other work done. It is only the double standard that Senate Republicans apply to President Obama's nominees that will require Democrats to jump through so many procedural hoops in order to hold confirmation votes. But this year or next, the GOP's unceasing obstruction tactics should not be accepted as business as usual.

PFAW

Lame Duck Opportunity and Obligation: Confirm Judges

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post.

During the upcoming lame duck session, the Senate has an opportunity to finish up a critically important task where they can act quickly by unanimous consent or voice votes: Confirming two dozen judicial nominees.

The GOP's behavior during their last few weeks as the minority party will be very telling. Before taking over the chamber next year, will they allow the Senate to do its job and confirm nominees? Or will Republicans continue their pattern of obstructing or delaying action on highly qualified nominees – even ones recommended to the White House by GOP senators – just because Democrats support them? This may give Americans some insight on whether Senate Republicans plan to use their newfound majority next year in a constructive manner, or whether they will continue to put destructive partisanship above the nation's welfare.

In September, senators left town without voting on any of the 16 district court nominees who had already been fully vetted by the Judiciary Committee and advanced to the Senate floor. Another eight district court nominees had their hearings in September and will be ready for committee approval the week the Senate returns, so the full Senate will be able to hold votes for them, as well. That's at least 24 district court vacancies that could be filled during the lame duck.

Eight of these would fill vacancies in three states – Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky – where the need is so great that the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has formally designated them as "judicial emergencies." All three of these states are represented by Republican senators, including the future Majority Leader.

In the Northern District of Georgia, the workload has gotten so high that even if the nominees were confirmed tomorrow, it would not be enough to ensure Americans their day in court. That is why the nonpartisan Judicial Conference of the United States has urged Congress to create two new judgeships there.

The situation is even more dire in Texas, where the Senate has a chance to fill three vacancies in the Eastern and Western Districts. The Western District judgeship has been vacant since 2008, and the Judicial Conference has asked for five new judgeships there to carry the load on top of filling all the existing vacancies. Chief Judge Fred Biery discussed the need for new judges last year, saying, "It would be nice to get some help. We are pedaling as fast as we can on an increasingly rickety bicycle." Judge David Ezra, formerly of Hawaii, explained why he was moving to Texas to hear cases in the Western District: "This is corollary to having a big wild fire in the Southwest Border states, and fire fighters from Hawaii going there to help put out the fire."

The Eastern District of Texas is in similar need of getting its vacancies filled during the lame duck: Of the nation's 94 federal districts, only two have had more weighted filings per judgeship than the Eastern District, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts' most recent statistics. Small wonder, then, that the Judicial Conference has asked for two new judgeships there: Even if every judgeship were filled, that just isn't enough. To make matters worse, two more judges in the Eastern District have announced their intention to retire or take senior status next year, making it all the more important to fill the current vacancies now.

(Senators also have another opportunity to help the people of Texas: Three nominees for the Southern District will likely have their committee hearings this month. Nominated by President Obama upon the recommendation of Sens. Cornyn and Cruz, these nominees can get a timely committee vote if the GOP cooperates, making them eligible to join the others on the Senate floor. Two of these vacancies are judicial emergencies, but even if they are filled, the Judicial Conference recommended that Congress create an additional two new judgeships to bring the Southern District up to an acceptable level of efficiency.)

There is no reason not to allow the Senate to vote on the judicial nominations before it. In fact, a number of Republican senators are on record supporting specific nominees from their state who they had recommended to the White House. For instance, back in June, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson urged "swift confirmation" for nominee Pam Pepper. Last spring, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey said he would work to make sure that four nominees from the Eastern District would be confirmed "as soon as possible." During the summer, Illinois' Mark Kirk said he would "urge the full Senate to swiftly approve" John Blakey, who is expected to be approved by the Judiciary Committee later this month.

In past years, when the Senate was a more functional body, confirmation votes for district court nominees were regularly held by unanimous consent or voice vote, taking a few seconds or minutes at most. That includes during lame duck sessions.

For instance, after the 2002 midterms, even though Senate Democrats had lost control of the chamber in the elections, they worked closely with Republicans during the lame duck session to make sure that 20 of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees got confirmed. These included a highly controversial circuit court nominee who was confirmed by a 55-44 roll call vote. The other 19 were confirmed by voice vote, 18 of them on the same day. In 2014, as in 2002, the Senate can voice-vote all the consensus nominees and hold roll-call votes on the handful who may have some opposition.

If the majority is allowed to hold confirmation votes on the nominees who have been fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee, this will finally let the president reduce the number of vacancies in America's court system to what it was when Bush left office. Republicans should cooperate in this endeavor rather than try to frustrate it. After all, this is basic governance, and something the Senate can do easily and quickly.

Will this happen without a fight? While we don't know for sure, recent GOP actions are not encouraging. For nearly a year, Republicans have filibustered every single judicial nomination without exception, even when they support the nominee. Obstruction continues even after the cloture vote. Absent unanimous consent to do otherwise, Senate rules require a period of "post-cloture debate" after a filibuster is broken: 30 hours for circuit and two hours for district court nominees. Since the rules also let the Democrats cede their half of the two-hour period for district court nominees, those post-cloture periods can be shortened. In recent months, Democrats and Republicans have often agreed to hold confirmation votes the day after the cloture votes without actually requiring that floor time be devoted to post-cloture debate on the nominee. This is what passes for GOP "cooperation" these days: A roll-call cloture vote with near-uniform Republican opposition, a delay of at least a day, and then a time-consuming roll-call confirmation vote for a nominee who usually has overwhelming if not unanimous bipartisan support.

The Constitution assigns to the Senate the job of deciding whether to confirm the president's judicial nominees. When the Senate is prevented from acting on this basic task in a timely manner, the entire third branch of the United States government atrophies. Americans are justly proud of our judicial system, which we count on to guarantee fairness and justice for all. It is not a controversial or partisan position to state that our courts should be staffed. And it should not be a controversial or partisan position to say that the Senate should be allowed to vote by year's end on whether to confirm the two dozen judicial nominees whose time would be better spent hearing cases rather than waiting out partisan senators.

PFAW

Don't Forget (And Don't Let Anyone Else Forget): The Courts are on the Ballot this November!

The fight to keep the Senate blue this November is critical to a slew of progressive issues – from immigration reform to voting rights, women’s health to LGBT equality. But the greatest risk of a Republican Senate could be an issue that gets far less mainstream attention: judicial and executive nominations.

Senate Republicans have a well-established track record of obstructing President Obama’s nominees for judicial and executive branch appointments. This past April, PFAW held a member telebriefing to discuss GOP obstruction tactics, such as delaying confirmation hearings and forcing time-consuming cloture votes. While the Senate made significant progress in recent months in filling critical vacancies, a staggering 153 judicial and executive nominees currently await confirmation votes in the Senate, and judicial vacancies continue to have real consequences for Americans nationwide. Republicans want a federal court system dominated by right-wing ideologues who issue poorly reasoned decisions that cause devastating harm to real people, rather than ones who adhere to the law and our constitutional principles. They have used their power as the minority to engage in unprecedented obstruction. But their ability to keep the executive and judicial branches of the United States government from functioning effectively would be amplified immensely should they control the Senate.

In an article this week addressing this potential threat to the nominations process, Talking Points Memo quoted congressional scholar Norm Ornstein as saying that a GOP-controlled Senate “means the ability of Obama to get any judicial nominations through becomes about zero.” And the people at Talking Points Memo aren’t the only ones to take note. Right-wing talk radio personality and American Family Association spokesperson Bryan Fischer told listeners today that the 2014 election is critical for conservatives because President Obama “is going to try to stack and pack every circuit court in the country.”

“This election in November is huge, because whoever controls the Senate now is going to be in control of every single nomination to the federal bench for the next few years,” said Fischer, who alleged that there is an “overwhelming preponderance of Obama acolytes” on federal courts.

There are countless reasons for progressives to turn out to the polls this November 4, and little doubt in our minds that the fight to keep the Senate blue will be a tough one. But the potential for continued judicial and executive vacancies that could result from a Republican-controlled Senate – and could have serious, negative consequences on the capacity of our judicial and executive branches of government -- is especially onerous.

PFAW

GOP Forces Cloture Petition on 100th Obama Judicial Nominee

Yesterday, in what has become standard operating procedure in the era of Republican obstruction, Senate Majority Leader Reid had to file a cloture petition to end the silent filibuster of a judicial nominee. Like many others who have required cloture, 11th Circuit nominee Jill Pryor doesn't face any real opposition. In fact, she was approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee.

Pryor is the 100th Obama judicial nominee to need a cloture petition (as compared to 18 for the entire Bush Administration). (Since some cloture petitions before this year were cleared up without the need to hold a cloture vote, Pryor will be the 76th Obama judicial nominee rather than the 100th to have a cloture vote.)

In 2014, not one judicial nominee has been able to get a confirmation vote without first needing a cloture vote to break a Republican filibuster. Think about it: Republicans have refused to consent to even one judicial confirmation vote this year. The great progress Americans have seen during the past few months in getting judges confirmed has been in spite of GOP obstruction, not because of GOP cooperation.

Not that they have any problems with the nominees, most of whom are ultimately confirmed with overwhelming and often unanimous Republican support. So rather than confirming blocks of nominees in quick voice votes or by unanimous consent, the Senate is forced to hold time-consuming roll-call cloture and confirmation votes for each individual nominee (often with hours of time required between the two votes). At least during President Obama's first term, a number of cloture petitions were vitiated, meaning that Republicans eventually allowed a confirmation vote without the need for a cloture vote. But that doesn't happen anymore.

The Republican goal is what it has been since President Obama took office: Gum up the works and keep vacancies open as long as possible in order to minimize the president's impact on the nation's judiciary, and in order to maximize opportunities for a Republican president to fill the bench with right-wing ideologues. Senate Democrats are right to fight the obstruction and to allow the Senate to fulfill its constitutional responsibility of keeping our nation's courts functioning.

Just imagine the damage to our courts if Republicans control the Senate – and the confirmation process – during President Obama's last two years.

PFAW

D.C. Circuit Old Guard Strikes Down Key Obamacare Subsidies Provision

A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit this morning struck down a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that allows subsidies for millions of people purchasing health insurance on government-run exchanges. The case is one of four cases on the same issue, strategically planted in various places around the country (Washington DC, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Indiana). The intent is apparently to get a split in circuit court opinions, so the Supreme Court will be more likely to take the case and, the proponents hope, deliver a crippling blow to Obamacare. (Unlike the millions of Americans who would be the real victims if this scheme succeeds, its proponents presumably have access to health insurance.) Today's ruling is the first among the four circuits.

Opponents of healthcare have an argument that might look appealing on the surface but doesn't pass the smell test. Section 1311 of the ACA says states should set up insurance exchanges. Section 1321 of the Act says the federal government can set one up if a state doesn't. The statute also says how to calculate the amount of a subsidy available for less well-off people getting health insurance through an exchange. It's based on the amount the person pays for the insurance s/he is enrolled in through an exchange "established by the state under [section] 1311" of the ACA. It's on the "by the state" language that the ACA's opponents hang their hat.

The anti-ACA people say the text is clear: The subsidy is unavailable to those who are getting their insurance in states where the federal government has set up the exchange. Judge Thomas Griffith and Senior Judge Raymond Randolph (nominated by Bush-43 and Bush-41, respectively) grabbed on to this argument, striking down subsidies for Americans living in states where politicians have chosen not to set up their own state exchanges.

Senior Judge Harry Edwards (a Carter nominee) dissented, pointing out that this was clearly not the intent of Congress. He explained the case quite plainly:

This case is about Appellants' not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("ACA").

...

Appellants' proffered construction of the statute would permit States to exempt many people from the individual mandate and thereby thwart a central element of the ACA. As Appellants' amici candidly acknowledge, if subsidies are unavailable to taxpayers in States with HHS-created Exchanges, "the structure of the ACA will crumble." It is inconceivable that Congress intended to give States the power to cause the ACA to "crumble." [emphasis added, internal citation removed]

Judge Edwards continues, shattering the majority's argument that their interpretation fits with congressional intent:

Apparently recognizing the weakness of a claim that rests solely on [one particular section of the Affordable Care Act], divorced from the rest of the ACA, Appellants attempt to fortify their position with the extraordinary argument that Congress tied the availability of subsidies to the existence of State-established Exchanges [rather than federal ones] to encourage States to establish their own Exchanges. This claim is nonsense, made up out of whole cloth. There is no credible evidence in the record that Congress intended to condition subsidies on whether a State, as opposed to HHS, established the Exchange. Nor is there credible evidence that any State even considered the possibility that its taxpayers would be denied subsidies if the State opted to allow HHS to establish an Exchange on its behalf.

The majority opinion ignores the obvious ambiguity in the statute and claims to rest on plain meaning where there is none to be found. In so doing, the majority misapplies the applicable standard of review, refuses to give deference to the IRS's and HHS's permissible constructions of the ACA, and issues a judgment that portends disastrous consequences.

Those disastrous consequences are not the intent of Congress, but they are the intent of far right zealots.

The Justice Department has already said it will seek an en banc review by all eleven judges of the D.C. Circuit, where President Obama's opponents have less likelihood of winning than would have been the case a year ago. In case you were wondering why Senate Republicans pulled out all the stops last year and declared they would not allow President Obama to fill any of the three then-existing vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, cases like this are why. The last thing they wanted was a balanced, non-ideological court.

For anyone who cares about healthcare, courts matter.

PFAW

Barney Frank: This Year’s Midterm Elections Define Our Courts

In an op-ed printed in the Portland Press Herald this weekend, retired congressman Barney Frank offers a sharp critique of the far right Supreme Court under John Roberts. Explicitly noting the importance of the Court in defining law that affects all citizens, Frank makes clear not only that courts matter, but everyday citizens have a hand in how these courts are shaped.

Reviewing the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions — from overturning “more than 100 years of federal and state efforts to regulate the role of money in campaigns” to declaring that corporations have the right to religious freedom under RFRA—Frank states that “the court has ended this term with a barrage against laws it does not like” (emphasis added).

He continues,

…The Supreme Court is now strongly inclined to impose conservative ideology via Constitutional interpretation on a broad range of public policy. It is true that Kennedy and to some extent Roberts occasionally deviate from this, but Justice Samuel Alito has surpassed even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in his ideological purity.

The relevance of this to the next two elections is very clear. Four of the sitting justices are in their late 70s or older. This means that there is a strong possibility that President Obama will have a chance to appoint another justice before his term expires, but his ability to do so will be determined not simply by the health of the justices in question, but by the composition of the U.S. Senate. The increasing partisanship in the Senate, the continued virulent influence of the tea party and recent history strongly suggest that even if a vacancy occurs, Obama will be prevented from filling it (emphasis added).

Frank refers to the unceasing Republican obstructionism and argues courts are critical for defining laws that affect Americans on a daily basis, highlighting the importance of this year’s midterm elections. As he concludes in this piece,

This makes it highly likely that among the issues that will be determined in the next senatorial and presidential election will be the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Voters should act accordingly.

PFAW

GOP Obstruction Leads to Supreme Court Ruling on Recess Appointments

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Ruling in the Noel Canning case this morning, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down President Obama's recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board as unconstitutional but the justices were sharply divided 5-4 in how they reached that conclusion. While Justice Breyer (joined by Kennedy, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Kagan) upheld the conclusion of the right-wing D.C. Circuit judges who had struck down the appointments, they did so on a far different and narrower basis: The Senate's pro-forma sessions meant that it wasn't in recess to begin with, so there couldn't be any recess appointments made.

The Court's majority also wrote that, consistent with practice going back to the 19th century, the Constitution lets the president make recess appointments during any recess (not just ones between two sessions of Congress) and for any vacancy (not just ones that opened up during the recess when the appointment is being made). Justice Scalia (joined by Roberts, Thomas, and Alito) have a much more cramped view: The president can make recess appointments only during the recess that occurs between two different sessions of Congress, and only for a vacancy that was created during that particular recess.


Senate Republicans have used unprecedented obstruction tactics to block nominees.

It's important to remember why this case arose in the first place. President Obama had been driven to make key appointments to the NLRB in January 2012, when the Senate was in recess but having pro forma sessions every three days to make it look like they were still in session. Senate Republicans were preventing the majority from holding a vote on whether to confirm Obama's nominees (at that time, a minority of 41 senators could prevent any confirmation vote), and the unfilled vacancies would have meant that NLRB lacked a quorum and would no longer be able to fully function and protect the rights of millions of working people.

Although Senate Republicans could not pass legislation closing the NLRB's doors, they sought to accomplish essentially the same results through another route, by blocking the Senate from voting to confirm new members of the Board. This was widely recognized as part of a larger pattern using obstruction to nullify laws and agencies that they lacked the electoral mandate to overturn or eliminate through legitimate means.

Justice Scalia accused his colleagues in the majority of being "atextual."

Scalia's concurrence gives examples of political opposition in the Senate leading to vacancies that cannot be filled, including "if [the Senate] should refuse to confirm any nominee for an office, thinking the office better left vacant for the time being." It seems a rather cavalier attitude to take to one chamber of Congress unilaterally deciding that the laws of the nation need not be carried out. And it should be noted that this particular constitutional conflict was not brought about by a Senate that thought the NLRB was better left impotent, but by a Senate minority that refused to let the majority fill the agency's vacancies.

PFAW

Great Progress in Judicial Nominations

During the past several months, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy have clearly made judicial nominations a priority. Taking advantage of last year's rules change and standing up against GOP filibusters of every judicial nominee without exception, Senate Democrats have made great strides in addressing the vacancy crisis.

So far in 2014, the Senate has confirmed 50 federal circuit and district court judges. That's more than were confirmed during all of last year, or during the year before. With the Senate finally able to do its job, the number of current vacancies has gone down from 92 at the beginning of the year to 60 today. The number of current vacancies is lower than it has been since the earliest weeks of the Obama Administration, when the GOP began its mission of obstructing his judicial nominees.

None of this is because Republicans have suddenly ended their obstruction. Far from it: They have not consented to a single one of this year's confirmation votes. Of course, once their filibusters are beaten back, they usually vote to confirm the nominee overwhelmingly.

Next to be confirmed are a diverse group of 16 pending nominees fully vetted by the Judiciary Committee (11 of them voted out just this morning). Of these 16 nominees, 11 are women or people of color. They would add to the experiential and professional diversity on the bench, as well. For instance, Florida's Beth Bloom and Paul Byron, Georgia's Leigh Martin May, and Louisiana's John deGravelles have private practice experience representing injured plaintiffs; Missouri's Ronnie White and California's André Birotte bring experience as public defenders; Florida's Carlos Mendoza and Paul Byron served in the military as criminal defense lawyers in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, respectively.

There is no reason not to have confirmation votes for all 16 of them before the long summer recess. If that happens, then the total number of current vacancies will drop into the 40s for the first time since before George W. Bush left office.

Every American has the right to protect their legal rights in a court of law, but judicial vacancies make that harder. Harry Reid, Patrick Leahy, and the Democrats are to be commended for making judicial confirmations such a high priority.

PFAW