The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights organized a call yesterday with Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and attorneys from Ohio, South Carolina and Arizona to discuss how judicial nominations gridlock in Washington hurts Americans seeking justice around the country.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reached a deal with Republicans to allow votes on 14 of 22 stalled judicial nominees. The first two of those were confirmed yesterday with overwhelming bipartisan votes.
The deal, while it represents more progress than Senate Republicans were previously willing to allow, still leaves eight nominees without even a vote from the Senate until May at least. Three of these nominees are from Ohio, Arizona and South Carolina.
This procedural gridlock is often portrayed as an inside-the-beltway issue. However, it has a real impact on American seeking justice from our federal courts.
Greg Kuykendall, a Tucson attorney who joined the call, told of a client who had to wait 14 months in jail before a District Court judge with an unmanageable caseload was finally able to review his claim that he was being detained in violation of his constitutional rights. “It effectively made the prisoner spend an additional 14 months in unconstitutional confinement, as a result of the judicial emergency,” Kuykendall said.
Cleveland attorney Michael Meuti told of a Ohio business that had to wait 14 months for a federal judge to review charges that had been brought against it. In the meantime, the business had to endure the uncertainty and cost of having a lawsuit hanging over it.
“Understaffed courts struggle to provide efficient and effective justice,” Meuti said. “When judicial vacancies increase, so do the workloads of each sitting judge. In turn, both individuals and businesses must wait longer for their cases to be resolved and must endure the uncertainties and costs of litigation for a greater period of time. President Obama’s nominees have waited four times longer than his predecessor’s. It is time for the Senate to abandon its obstructionist agenda, which can serve only to make justice harder to obtain for everyday Americans and American companies.”
Armand Derfner, a Charleston, South Carolina attorney, added, “"These nominees are being obstructed for no good reason. They’re suitable, qualified, and many have bipartisan support. The Senate should stop delaying votes to fill these vacancies.”
This week, People For and 46 other progressive groups sent a letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate urging them to end the backlog of judicial nominees before the end of this session of Congress. Republican obstruction has prevented dozens of nominees from even receiving a vote on the Senate floor, leaving the federal court system with over 100 vacancies and the slowing down the process of bringing more diversity to the federal bench. Read the full letter:
Dear Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell:
The undersigned organizations strongly urge you to end the troubling backlog of judicial nominees that exists to date in the 111th Congress. The obstruction of many of President Obama’s nominees through filibuster threats and anonymous “holds” is hindering the important work of our judicial branch, particularly in the many areas of our nation that now face judicial emergencies due to unfilled vacancies on the bench.
Throughout the 111th Congress, President Obama has worked with the Senate on a bipartisan basis to select extraordinarily well-qualified judicial nominees who could easily be confirmed by wide margins and begin serving the public, if brought to a vote before the full Senate. Yet a troubling number of these nominees, many of whom have been cleared by the Committee on the Judiciary with little or no opposition, have been blocked from up-or-down confirmation votes for reasons that defy explanation. Indeed, many of President Obama’s judicial nominees who have been confirmed, to date, have been confirmed by unanimous votes – but only after languishing for many months on the Senate floor, raising significant doubts about the legitimacy of the ongoing delays in confirmation proceedings.
Due to arcane floor procedures that allow a single member to impede the important business of the Senate, our judicial branch has reached a state of crisis. Out of 872 federal judgeships, 106 are currently vacant, with 50 of those vacancies now characterized as “judicial emergencies” in which courts are being overwhelmed by filings that cannot be considered. As a result, a growing number of Americans, from all walks of life and across all economic strata, are finding it increasingly more difficult to assert their legal rights and to have their fair day in court.
In the meantime, the Senate is badly failing in its constitutionally-mandated role of considering the nominees that President Obama has selected. Prior to entering its pro forma session, the Senate failed to confirm any of the 23 nominees who are currently pending on the Senate floor, 17 of whom advanced through the committee process with no opposition whatsoever. Moreover, 11 of the pending nominees would fill seats designated as judicial emergencies – and more than half of the pending nominees are people of color, while 10 of them are women, who would bring badly-needed and long-overdue diversity to our judicial branch.
We write to you at a time when our nation faces numerous challenges that cry out for bipartisan cooperation, including major economic challenges and continued international threats. We strongly believe that the continued obstruction of nominations will poison the political atmosphere, needlessly heighten partisan tensions, and make it far more difficult for the federal government to serve the public interest in any respect. These consequences are all but certain to continue into the 112th Congress and beyond.
For these reasons, in the remaining weeks of the 111th Congress, we strongly urge you to work together in a bipartisan fashion to proceed with confirmation votes on the two dozen judicial nominees who remain pending on the Senate floor. Thank you for your consideration.
Alliance for Justice
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
American Association for Affirmative Action
American Association of People with Disabilities
American Association of University Women
American Federation of Government Employees
American Federation of Teachers
Americans for Democratic Action
Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum
Asian American Justice Center
Constitutional Accountability Center
Equal Justice Society
Families USA Foundation
Hispanic National Bar Association
Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary
Human Rights Campaign
Japanese American Citizens League
Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
League of United Latin American Citizens
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.
National Asian Pacific American Bar Association
National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse
National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum
National Association of Consumer Advocates
National Association of Human Rights Workers
National Association of Social Workers
National Black Justice Coalition
National Congress of Black Women, Inc.
National Council of Jewish Women
National Disability Rights Network
National Employment Lawyers Association
National Fair Housing Alliance
National Partnership for Women & Families
National Urban League
National Women’s Law Center
People For the American Way
Secular Coalition for America
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund
DC has waited over 200 years to have a voting voice in Congress. Today the nation’s capital may be as close as it’s ever come to making that dream a reality.
On Wednesday afternoon came the breaking news that an agreement had been reached to move forward on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, which would give DC a full Representative with the same voting power as other House members. Just this morning, I joined a room full of concerned citizens and activists for a briefing lead by DC Vote and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. We then took to the halls of Congress in support of the Delegate’s tireless efforts on this issue.
Nobody is happy that this agreement comes at the price of right-wing interference in local affairs. But to go any longer without voting rights is an even higher price to pay. DC can’t keep fighting these intrusions without a meaningful way to say “aye” or “no” when those infamous bells ring calling members to the House floor. As Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights put it:
The civil rights community recognizes that it must be prepared to accept some setbacks in the name of long-term progress. Virtually every major piece of civil rights legislation, from 1957 onwards, has involved difficult and often painful tradeoffs. In this case, given the fundamental importance of gaining a vote in Congress, we are prepared to move forward with the voting rights bill.
People For the American Way believes that the right-wing should stay away from this bill. But we also believe it’s a tragedy that our Democracy has allowed DC residents to live without voting representation for over 200 years. Any citizen who pays taxes, and is otherwise legally eligible to vote, should be able to vote. And certainly no member of the armed services should be robbed of the right to vote simply because of where they live.
The fight will not be over even when DC can cast a House vote. It is high time the nation’s capital be given both House and Senate representation, with voting power in both chambers.