Timothy K. Lewis, a George H.W. Bush nominee who served on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals from 1992 through 1999, offers some perspective on how judicial confirmations were handled before they became mired in hyper-partisan gridlock:
Nineteen years ago, in the fall of 1992, I was nominated by President George H. W. Bush for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. My confirmation hearing lasted one hour. In fact, I had no time to prepare for it. As a federal district judge, I was in the courtroom, charging a jury, when my secretary burst in with the news that my Senate hearing was to be the very next day. That is how much notice I had. When the vote was called only a few days later, I was unanimously confirmed.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not to celebrate me. It is to reflect on a better time for our politics and ask how things went so wrong. Among the 192 Article III judges confirmed during the elder Bush’s presidency, only David Souter and Clarence Thomas faced confirmation battles (with Thomas undergoing a very difficult confirmation battle). But, of course, they were under consideration for the Supreme Court.
Compare that now with the Obama administration. The president has had only 96 Article III nominations confirmed and 55 others remain in limbo, awaiting Senate action. They are stuck in a process that should by all constitutional standards remain rigorous, but shouldn’t it also be productive? In the same period of time, George W. Bush had 322 confirmed nominees and Bill Clinton had 372 confirmed.
The Obama administration was slow out of the gate on this one – nominations trickled forth in the early days of the administration when the President’s team should have been well-prepared with the names of nominees. But a considerable amount of the fault for this also has to be laid at the feet of Republicans who have made it a badge of honor to frustrate this President, himself a man of the law, from shaping the federal courts he inherited from George W. Bush. If you doubt this conclusion, reflect for a moment on the Senate minority leader’s comment shortly before the 2010 mid-term election when he said that the top – top — political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office. Really, Senator? So where on the priority list do we put conducting the Senate’s constitutional business?
The gridlock in judicial nominations has been one of the less-noticed bits of collateral damage from the congressional GOP’s scorched-earth policy. But it has caused very real harm to Americans seeking justice in courts around the country -- there are currently 37 judicial emergencies in the federal courts in areas where the sitting judges are too overworked to provide prompt access to justice. Last week, Senate Republicans made an exception to their gridlock rule to fill the most publicized of those emergencies: the seat of Arizona Judge John Roll, who was murdered in the Phoenix shooting that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Roll had stopped by the Giffords event to tell the congresswoman about the urgent need to fill vacancies on the court.
Senate Republicans’ commitment to delay was made particularly clear when they refused to allow a floor vote on 20 pending nominees, most of whom had advanced with no opposition. The Senate GOP’s foot-dragging on judicial nominees is clearly meant to hobble the president’s attempts at basic governance and preserve the dominance of conservative George W. Bush-appointed judges. But it also amounts to the shirking of a basic duty of the Senate: to fill the judiciary with capable, non-politically-motivated judges.