Wisconsin Voter ID Reminds Us of the Importance of Circuit Courts

The Supreme Court this morning denied a request to review the Seventh Circuit's decision to uphold Wisconsin's strict voter ID law. This case shows just how important fair and just courts are to protecting our most important rights, and the consequences of Republican efforts to prevent President Obama from filling circuit court vacancies.

Last spring, a federal district court struck the law down, recognizing that it would have a discriminatory impact on African Americans and Latinos, and that "it is absolutely clear that [it] will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes." Of course, that is no surprise, since that is the unstated purpose of these laws. Fortunately, when Wisconsinites recognized that their rights were being violated, a federal judge was able to make sure that partisan efforts to suppress the vote were not able to overcome our laws protecting the right to vote.

Unfortunately, this decision was reversed by a Seventh Circuit panel consisting of conservative judges nominated by Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. When the entire circuit was asked to review the panel decision, they split 5-5, just one vote short of preventing those rules from going into effect.

One judge could have really made a difference. And it just so happens that Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has blocked efforts to fill a longtime vacancy on that court for more than four years, since the day he took office after the 2010 elections. Make no mistake: Johnson and his fellow Republicans preventing President Obama from putting judges on the bench know full well how important the federal courts are, especially the circuit courts.

In fact, the Seventh Circuit is not the only one with a long-unfilled vacancy. Republican senators from Texas, Kentucky, and Alabama have also been blocking President Obama's efforts to nominate highly qualified jurists to fill longtime vacancies on the Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits. As we have written:

[N]o senator should see President Obama's outreach as an opportunity to coerce him into naming an unacceptable far-right nominee. Keeping the judgeship vacant even longer in the hopes that a future (hopefully Republican) president will fill it is not a reasonable option, serving only to make justice less available to those who need it most. At some point, such senators have two choices. They can agree with the White House on someone everyone can support. Alternatively, they should acknowledge the extensive consultations that occurred and present any concerns about the eventual nominee in public before the Judiciary Committee, where the nominee has a chance to respond.

Either way, Republican senators cannot be allowed to indefinitely prevent anyone from being nominated to fill longtime judicial vacancies.

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Why Only Two Judges for Hearings This Week?

Good news: For the first time since January, the Senate Judiciary Committee is allowing a hearing on judicial nominations. The bad news: Although seven nominees have been waiting since last November, Chairman Chuck Grassley is only allowing a hearing for two of them.

That's right … although the number of circuit and district court vacancies has increased from 40 to 51 since the beginning of the year, and even though the number of judicial emergencies has jumped from 12 to 22 in that time, and even though there are numerous nominees who could have a hearing this week, all but two of them will have to keep waiting.

Roseann Ketchmark would serve in the Western District of Missouri, and Kara Farnandez Stoll would serve in the Federal Circuit. For those whose legal rights are protected by those courts, tomorrow's hearing is good news.

But why only two nominees on the agenda? Dale Drozd would fill a judicial emergency in California's Eastern District. LaShann DeArcy Hall and Ann Donnelly would serve in New York's Eastern District. Travis McDonough has been nominated for a seat in Tennessee's Eastern District. And L. Felipe Restrepo would fill a judicial emergency on the Third Circuit, where a second vacancy will be opening up in July.  They all have to wait.

This fast-as-molasses action from the Judiciary Committee stands in stark contrast to how the Democratic Senate processed George W. Bush's nominees in the last two years of his presidency. The Senate confirmed 68 circuit and district court nominees during that time, slashing the number of vacancies from 56 at the start of 2007 to as low as 34 in the fall of 2008.

The current Senate should match that dedication to processing judicial nominations. For that to happen, the Judiciary Committee needs to let nominees have timely hearings.

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McConnell Should Let Senate Confirm Judges

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to schedule a confirmation vote on the four district court nominees who cleared the Judiciary Committee without opposition nearly two weeks ago: Jill Parrish for the District of Utah, and Alfred Bennett, George Hanks, and Jose Rolando Olvera for the Southern District of Texas.

Texas in particular is in desperate need of more federal judges. The Lone Star State has a shocking 11 judicial seats currently vacant (with a twelfth one opening this spring). In fact, the eleventh vacancy opened just today. This opening came as no surprise: Judge Richard Schell of the Eastern District announced back in January of 2014 that he would be taking senior status. Texas Sens. Cornyn and Cruz could have recommended an acceptable nominee to the White House in time for that person to have been fully vetted, nominated, and confirmed last year. Unfortunately, that did not happen; no nomination has been made yet.

Of those eleven vacancies, seven have been designated judicial emergencies. That's nearly one third of all the judicial emergencies nationwide. Confirming the three Texas nominees who have been waiting for Senator McConnell to schedule a floor vote would help alleviate this problem.

All three would serve in the Southern District of Texas, which will still have an additional two vacancies remaining even after these nominees are confirmed. McConnell's delay is adding unnecessarily to the strain on the area's federal court system.

Just how bad is that strain? The Judicial Conference of the United States has asked Congress to create an additional two judgeships in the Southern District of Texas. In other words, even if all three pending nominees were confirmed today, and the other two vacancies were magically filled tomorrow (even though they don't have nominees), the crushing caseload burden on the Southern District is so bad that at least another two judges would be needed to ensure that the people of Texas have access to a fair and efficient federal court system.

A confirmation vote on the Texas (and Utah) nominees is long overdue.

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GOP Senate Moving Obama's Judges Slower than Democrats Moved Bush's

Two months into the new 114th Congress, it's a good time to take stock of how the Republican-controlled Senate is doing when it comes to processing circuit and district court judicial nominations. So far, the Judiciary Committee has held only one hearing to consider such nominations, and that was back in January. And even though no one questioned the four nominees' qualifications, Chairman Grassley delayed a scheduled vote by two weeks without offering an explanation, so it took the committee more than five weeks after their hearing to finally advance them to the floor. No further hearings have been held (but one has been announced for next week).

As we have written before, a key metric for comparing how the Senate is doing in Obama's last two years is how the newly-Democratic Senate handled George W. Bush's nominees in the last two years of his presidency. The Judiciary Committee under Chairman Patrick Leahy was very busy during the first two months of the 110th Congress. There were numerous nominees from the previous Congress approved by the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee but left unconfirmed at the end of 2006. Rather than force them into new hearings for the benefit of the new committee members, Chairman Leahy arranged for quick votes instead. By this point in 2007, the committee had advanced ten such judicial nominees directly to the full Senate. Eight of them were already confirmed by the full Senate by mid-February. (The remaining two were confirmed on March 8.)

In addition to re-vetting and voting on these ten returning judicial nominees, the Judiciary Committee had also fully processed three first-time nominees by this point in 2007, with hearings quickly followed by committee votes just 3½ weeks later. (All three were confirmed by the end of March.)

In Bush's last two years, the Senate confirmed 68 circuit and district court nominees, slashing the number of vacancies from 56 at the start of 2007 to as low as 34 in the fall of 2008. Today's Republican Senate has confirmed no nominees so far this year. In the meantime, the number of current vacancies has climbed from 40 at the beginning of the year to 47 today, and the number of judicial emergencies has jumped from 12 to 21.

As noted above, the Judiciary Committee has said it will hold a nominations hearing next week. Considering that there are seven circuit and district court nominees who were nominated back in November, they should all have hearings as soon as possible.

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More Delay on the Restrepo Nomination

Qualified jurists nominated for federal judgeships way back in November are still waiting to have a committee hearing scheduled. They include Kara Farnandez Stoll, who would be the first woman of color on the Federal Circuit, and L. Felipe Restrepo of Pennsylvania, who would be the first judge on the Third Circuit with experience as a public defender. The Third Circuit vacancy has been designated a judicial emergency, and with another vacancy on that court opening on July 1, it is even more important not to keep delaying Restrepo's already overdue hearing.

Yet a Grassley spokeswoman told The Legal Intelligencer (subscription required) that she "couldn't even estimate" a timeframe for Restrepo's hearing. Apparently, that's because the committee is also working on other nominations. She said that processing the Loretta Lynch attorney general nomination had required "all hands on deck," and that the committee was also preparing for the deputy attorney general nomination of Sally Yates.

Surely the committee is capable of handling both executive and judicial nominations.

A comparison to the Bush era is instructive, when the Democratic Judiciary Committee considered Michael Mukasey's nomination to be attorney general. The committee received Mukasey's nomination on September 21, 2007, held hearings, and advanced him to the full Senate on November 6. During that time, the committee was able to hold confirmation hearings on six judicial nominees and advance two to the full Senate. It was also able to advance an additional four judicial nominees the week after voting on Mukasey.

Fast-forward to now, a week after Lynch was advanced to the full Senate. The Judiciary Committee hasn't held a hearing for circuit or district court nominees since January 21, a week before the Lynch hearing. In the meantime, the number of current vacancies has climbed from 40 at the beginning of the year to 47 today, and the number of judicial emergencies has jumped from 12 to 21.

Hearings for Judge Restrepo and other judicial nominees are long overdue.

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Republican Inaction as Judicial Emergencies Jump

Yesterday we blogged about how the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman Chuck Grassley ought to move judicial nominations next week when they return from recess. We noted that the number of vacancies has increased from 39 at the end of last year's lame duck session to 46 today, with fourteen of those officially designated as judicial emergencies.

Well, we've had developments since yesterday's post. First, next week's committee schedule is up, and no hearings have been announced for judicial nominees.

And secondly, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts this morning designated an additional five vacancies as judicial emergencies, so the total has jumped from 14 to 19.

These new emergencies include one in the Northern District of Texas, which has been vacant since July of 2013 and which had been announced in advance in April of that year. Yet it was not until last July that Sens. Cornyn and Cruz announced a process to identify Northern District recommendations to the White House. Perhaps if they had not waited more than a year after being notified of this vacancy, it would be filled today. Instead, there is no nominee yet, and a vacancy that should not still exist is instead a judicial emergency.

Texas now has seven judicial emergencies, more than a third of the national total. Two of them have nominees who should have advanced to the Senate floor last week, but were delayed when Republicans decided to delay the scheduled committee vote on four fully vetted district court nominees by two weeks simply because they could.

Another of the newly designated emergencies is in the Third Circuit. The good news is that district court judge L. Felipe Restrepo was nominated to fill this seat way back in November, and that he has the enthusiastic support of his home state senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey. The bad news is that Chairman Grassley continues not to schedule a hearing for this highly qualified nominee (or any other). With this vacancy now a judicial emergency and a second vacancy on the circuit opening in July, the decision to slow-walk this nomination is even more harmful.

So as of today, the number of judicial emergencies has jumped from 12 at the beginning of the year to 19 today. Senate Republicans can and should do much more to get that number moving back down.

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Republicans Should Move Judicial Nominations Next Week

With the Republican-controlled Senate returning to town next week, one of the things they should turn their attention to is moving judicial nominations. Because vacancies are always opening up on the courts, the Senate has to confirm a number of judges just to keep even. So far in the 114th Congress, we are not keeping even.

When the lame duck session of Congress ended in mid-December, there were 39 vacancies on our nation's federal circuit and district courts. Today there are 46 vacancies, 14 of them officially designated as judicial emergencies. Another five district court judges will be stepping down in just the next three weeks.

Even taking into account that the committee has also been handling the Attorney General nomination, we could and should have seen more progress on judges by now. There has been only one judicial nominations hearing, back in January, and the four Utah and Texas district court nominees who have now been fully vetted were scheduled for a committee vote last week. This was actually a critical test for the GOP, since it was their first chance to show that they would not continue to engage in the practice of needlessly delaying committee votes on judicial nominees just because they can. Unfortunately, they failed, holding the nominees over for two weeks on the basis that it was their first time on the agenda (in other words, they delayed the vote because they could).

When senators come back to town next week, the Judiciary Committee should vote these four nominees out, and the full Senate should promptly hold a confirmation vote.

It is also past time to hold hearings for people who were nominated more than three months ago, like Third Circuit nominee L. Felipe Restrepo (nominated November 12). Already a judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Restrepo has the bipartisan support of home state senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey. He would be the first judge on the Third Circuit with experience as a public defender, as well as the first Latino judge from Pennsylvania on the Third Circuit. There is no reason to delay a hearing for him or other long-waiting nominees.

To judge how the Republican Senate is doing, a convenient basis of comparison is the Democratic Senate during George W. Bush's last two years. As we noted when discussing the remarkable success in confirming judges in 2014:

The Bush example is particularly instructive. At the beginning of 2007, 56 judgeships were vacant. Rather than taking advantage of their new majority as a result of the 2006 elections to allow vacancies to build up, Senate Democrats made sure to process Bush's nominees in a fair and timely manner. ... Throughout the 110th Congress of 2007-2008, the number of vacancies generally remained at 50 or fewer. The Senate confirmed 68 judges during those two years, getting the number of vacancies down to as low as 34 in the early fall of 2008.

So keep an eye on how many judicial vacancies there are and whether that number goes up or down. That will be a good indication of whether Republicans are working in good faith to keep America's judicial system effectively staffed, or whether they are instead deliberately allowing vacancies to build up.

 

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Thursday is Test Day for Senate Judiciary Republicans

Tomorrow morning, we will learn more about how Chairman Chuck Grassley will run the Senate Judiciary Committee ... and whether Republicans will continue one of the indefensible forms of obstruction that they engaged in for six years while in the minority.

Grassley has scheduled a meeting for tomorrow with key votes on the agenda. They include four district court nominees from Texas and Utah, the first ones fully processed by the committee under its new Republican leadership.

The question is whether the committee will be allowed to vote on any of these nominees. Committee rules let senators "hold over" (i.e., delay) committee votes without explanation. This was done during previous presidencies when a nominee was controversial or when senators needed more time to evaluate the nominee. But during the first six years of the Obama presidency, Republicans exercised this right for all but 12 of his judicial nominees, which was an unprecedented abuse of the rules. As we said when we first wrote about this particular tool of obstruction in 2011:

Voting on a federal judicial nomination is an extremely serious responsibility and one that requires diligent research and thought. So if senators sincerely have questions that have not been answered, or genuine and substantial concerns about a nominee's fitness for the bench, then no one should begrudge them an extra few days to gather additional information.

But when Republicans exercise this option for every nominee, even those who are strongly supported by their home state Republican senators and have no opposition whatsoever, then their sincerity must be called into question.

But that was when Republicans were in the minority. It's one thing to always demand a delay when you're never the one to have scheduled the votes. It would be another thing altogether for Republicans to routinely ask for delay when they're the ones putting people on the schedule in the first place. Tomorrow's action may tell us what to expect for the next two years.

Two of the Texas nominees would fill vacancies that have been officially designated as judicial emergencies by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. One has been vacant just short of two years, and the other has been vacant since the end of 2012. (The other Texas seat has been vacant for "only" eight months, while the Utah one has been vacant for over a year.)

As for the nominees themselves, all four have the strong support of their home state senators, which is not unusual. But in this case, each of those home state senators is a Republican who is on the Judiciary Committee.

So will Sens. Cornyn, Cruz, Hatch, and Lee sit there and say nothing tomorrow if a vote on their nominees is delayed for no reason? Will Sen. Grassley start his chairmanship by insisting that committee votes be delayed even when he's the one to have scheduled them in the first place?

Tune in tomorrow.

UPDATE:  Thursday morning, Grassley held the nominees over, on the basis that it was their first time on the agenda.  In other words, "because we can."

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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.

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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.

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