Unable to come up with any legitimate reason to filibuster President Obama’s three nominees to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Senate Republicans have landed on a not-so-convincing excuse: They claim that the court has too many judges as it is and that it would be wasteful to fill its remaining vacancies.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has even gone so far as to introduce a bill that would permanently reduce the number of seats on the influential court from eleven to eight (the number of active judges currently sitting on the court), thereby preventing President Obama from placing any more nominees on the court. (The president has had one nominee confirmed to the DC Circuit, compared to four nominees under President Bush and eight under President Reagan).
Grassley’s bill would reduce the number of slots on the DC Circuit by three and “reallocate” two of those seats to circuits that he contends need the judges more.
There are a number of gaping flaws in Grassley’s logic, the first of which is that he and his fellow Republicans were eager to fill the very same DC Circuit seats that they are now trying to eliminate back when President Bush was the one making nominations.
Then, there’s the fact that there seems to be absolutely no basis for reallocating the two D.C. Circuit seats to the Eleventh and Second circuits. The official office that evaluates the needs of federal courts and makes recommendations for adding and removing seats doesn’t include the D.C. Circuit in its recommendations because the court’s caseload is uniquely complex and difficult to compare to that of other courts…and it also hasn’t recommended that the Eleventh or Second circuits get new judges.
This was confirmed by a former Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit whose statement [see p. 34 of this pdf] was submitted into the Senate record last month confirming that his former court indeed does not need new judges:
Since my appointment to the Eleventh Circuit on October 1, 1990, the judges of our court annually have voted whether or not we should ask Congress to authorize more federal judges. Each time our court considers the topic, an overwhelming majority of our members have voted “no!”
Even one of the co-sponsors of the court-rigging bill – Sen. Jeff Sessions – has gone on record saying that the Eleventh and Second Circuits actually don’t need new judgeships.
All of which makes one suspect that of all the goals that Sen. Grassley might have in mind with the Court Efficiency Act, the efficiency of the courts is probably not one of them.
Yesterday, the Senate unanimously confirmed Iowa’s Jane Kelly to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Kelly, who currently serves as a federal public defender, becomes “only the second woman, and the first public defender, to serve in the history of the court that was established in 1891,” according to the Iowa City Gazette.
Kelly also makes history by having the quickest confirmation process of any of President Obama’s appeals court nominees so far, according to the Gazette. Kelly waited just 33 days for a confirmation vote, compared to the average 153 day wait for President Obama’s circuit court nominees (as of two weeks ago). Kelly’s quick confirmation, however, would not have been at all noteworthy at this point in George W. Bush administration, when appellate nominees waited an average of just 37 days between committee approval and Senate confirmation.
Kelly’s speedy confirmation may have something to do with the senators supporting her. Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee has been instrumental in obstructing President Obama’s judicial nominees, seemed to put aside his obstruction habits for a nominee from his own state.
This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved five nominees to serve on federal district courts in New York, California and Florida and on the US Court of International Trade. A week ago, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley postponed votes on all five nominations without giving a reason, a delaying tactic that he has used on 97 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees who the committee has voted on.
Sen. Grassley did not explain the reason for the delay last week, when a coalition of Iowa and national groups urged him to stop such routine delays. And the reason remained unclear today, as all five nominees were approved without opposition.
These five nominees now join fifteen other federal judicial nominees awaiting confirmation votes from the full Senate. The Senate has made progress by scheduling confirmation votes on four unopposed district court nominees in the past week, but that small amount of progress isn’t nearly enough to fill the gaps in overworked federal courts. Seven of the nominees still waiting for votes would fill officially-designated “judicial emergencies.”
It would be easy, of course, for the Senate to hold votes on all of the remaining nominees before the end of the year. After all, most were approved by the Judiciary Committee many months ago. But Senate Republicans have continued to stall even nominees with strong bipartisan support. All the circuit court nominees waiting for votes have the support of their home-state senators, Republican and Democratic, and nearly all of the pending district court nominees were approved by the Judiciary Committee with unanimous or nearly unanimous bipartisan support. One circuit court nominee, New Jersey’s Patty Shwartz, has been waiting nine months just for an up-or-down vote from the Senate; Federal Circuit nominee Richard Taranto has also been waiting since March.
If the Senate fails to vote on these nominees during the lame duck, the confirmation process – from presidential nomination through floor vote – will have to start all over again next year.
Notable about the district court nominees approved by the Judiciary Committee today is that all are women or people of color, representative of President Obama’s efforts to bring diversity to the federal courts. The nominees also include New York’s Pamela Chen, who would become just the fifth openly gay person to be confirmed to a lifetime federal judgeship.
As we like to remind anyone who will listen, the current GOP senate has been shameless in its enthusiasm for obstructing judicial nominees just for the sake of obstruction. For instance, a PFAW memo on August 2 reported that of 24 nominees then waiting for confirmation votes, 21 had been voted through the Senate Judiciary Committee with no recorded opposition. Instead of sending through at least the unopposed nominees in a voice vote and moving on with its business, the Senate decided to keep these potential jurists off the bench for as long as possible – despite the pressing problem of unfilled judicial seats leading to slowed down justice. Ultimately, 4 of those nominees were confirmed by the Senate before it left for its August recess, and 20 remain waiting. (The Washington Post this morning lamented that such “gamesmanship is not only frustrating but also destructive”)
This sort of thing is a clear example of obstruction for obstruction’s sake. But what about the nominees who do face some GOP opposition? Last week, The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen took an in-depth look at some of President Obama’s nominees who were ultimately confirmed by the Senate, but who received more than 25 “no” votes. The reason? Most were opposed because of a record fighting for civil liberties or against big corporations. Here are a few of Cohen’s examples:
7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Hamilton (Votes 59-39). Even though his local Federalist Society endorsed this nephew of former Congressional leader Lee Hamilton, Senate Republicans mostly didn't because, as a trial judge, Hamilton had issued this 2005 ruling which had infuriated the religious right. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Judge Hamilton had ruled that Indiana's legislative prayer before each session could no longer be "sectarian" and regularly invoke the name of Jesus Christ.
Northern District of Ohio Judge Benita Y. Pearson (Votes 56-39). The first black female federal jurist in Ohio almost didn't get the gig. The precise reasons why are unclear. The People for the American Way suggested that she was a member of an animal rights group and thus earned the wrath of those in the cattle industries -- although 39 "no" votes is quite a lot of beef to have against a pioneering jurist.
District of Colorado Judge William J. Martinez (Votes 58-37). By contrast, it is not hard to understand why this Mexico-born nominee roused so much Republican opposition on the floor of the Senate. Before he was nominated, Martinez advised the Americans with Civil Liberties Union and was a lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (just like Clarence Thomas before him, only Justice Thomas' EEOC experience evidently was a boon for his nomination). Of nominee Martinez, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said: "It seems that if you've got the ACLU DNA you've got a pretty good leg up to being nominated by this president."
District of Rhode Island Judge John J. McConnell (Votes 50-44). It's also fairly clear why Judge McConnell almost didn't make it onto the bench. Senate Republicans didn't like him because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn't like him because, as a lawyer, McConnell had successfully sued Big Tobacco and fought for those harmed by lead paint. Evidently that's five Republican votes more serious in the Senate than ticking off Big Beef.
Northern District of California Judge Edward M. Chen (Votes 56-42). Like Judge Martinez, Edward Chen evidently was touched with the "ACLU gene," which rendered him objectionable to Senate Republicans. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), whose state's Asian population is nearly three times lower than the American average, voted against Chen because he thought the well-respected former magistrate judge employed the "empathy standard" of judging.
District of Oregon Judge Michael H. Simon (Votes 64-35). Harvard educated? Check. Prior government experience with the Justice Department? Check. So why 35 "no" votes? Because Simon had worked for the ACLU. The seat he took on the federal bench, reported the Oregonian, had been vacant for 664 days, two months short of two years. How would you like to have been a litigant in Oregon during that time?
All of these nominees were ultimately confirmed – but not after plenty of stalling and debate over the value of “ACLU DNA” or of holding big corporations accountable for their actions. When we talk about the many nominees who are unopposed yet unaccountably stalled, it’s important to remember that the few nominees who do face GOP opposition don’t always face that opposition for the most convincing of reasons.