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.
This morning, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee did something they have done only a handful of times: They exercised their discretion NOT to obstruct one of President Obama's judicial nominees.
The Committee was scheduled to vote on ten nominations this morning. With only four exceptions during the entirety of Obama's presidency, Republicans have exercised their prerogative to delay a committee vote for judicial nominees, even when those nominees are unopposed and are desperately needed to address burgeoning judicial emergencies. It is part of their larger strategy to throw sand in the wheels of the confirmation process in every way possible.
This morning, they did not request a delay for Jennifer Guerin Zipps, who has been nominated to be a district judge in Arizona. What makes Guerin Zipps different? The seat is a judicial emergency, but that has not mattered before. The nominee is unopposed, but even nominees without opposition and with the strong support of their Republican home-state senators have seen their votes delayed.
Only one thing makes this nomination different: Republicans know that the American people are paying attention, because this is to fill the seat that was held by Judge John Roll, who was among those killed in Tucson last January when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot. Roll was seeking to meet Giffords to discuss the worsening caseload crisis overwhelming the area's federal judges. Americans were appalled by the violence, which brings this particular vacancy far more public attention than usual.
Knowing the American people are somberly watching, Senate Republicans declined to play political games with this nomination.
Not surprisingly, for all the other nominations that were scheduled for a committee vote for the first time this morning, they demanded a needless delay.
We write a lot about “judicial emergencies”—situations where slow-downs in the judicial nominations process have led court systems to be woefully understaffed. These cases are not emergencies because judges have to work harder—they’re emergencies because when courts are overworked, access to justice is delayed.
Last week, Politics Daily’s Andrew Cohen explained what is happening in Arizona, where Chief District Court Judge John Roll was murdered when he stopped by an event with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to talk with her about the overcrowded courts. Roll had been planning to request that Arizona be labeled a “judicial emergency” in order to loosen restrictions on speedy trials:
Roll did not live to see his request granted. But on Tuesday, less than three weeks after he was shot by accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner, Roll's successor finally did declare a "judicial emergency" in the state after consulting with the 9th Circuit's Judicial Council. The move by Chief U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver allows federal judges in the state to wait for as long as 180 days between the time of the indictment or complaint and the time of trial, even if a criminal defendant wants to go to trial more quickly.
The administrative move could delay the Loughner case itself, depending upon whether the 22-year-old defendant's attorneys try to change the trial venue from Arizona to another state or if federal prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty against Loughner. Most federal murder cases do not go to trial quickly anyway, in large part because of the significant pre-trial work it typically takes for lawyers to prepare their cases. The government has not yet charged Loughner with a capital crime. The next hearing in the case is set for March 9.
The extraordinary action by Silver was taken because of the sheer volume of cases. According to the 9th Circuit: "The Arizona federal court has the third highest criminal caseload in the nation, driven by illegal immigration and drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. Criminal cases have increased 65 percent since 2008, when the federal government greatly expanded its law enforcement efforts along the border. The bulk of the criminal caseload is assigned to the court's Tucson division, where three judges currently handle approximately 1,200 cases each" (emphasis added).
There are currently 101 empty seats in the federal courts, 49 of which have been labeled as judicial emergencies [pdf]. Chief Justice John Roberts recently pleaded with the Senate to stop holding up judicial nominees, saying their stalling had resulted in “acute difficulties for some judicial districts.” Justice Anthony Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times, “It's important for the public to understand that the excellence of the federal judiciary is at risk.”
In an editorial memo last week, PFAW outlined the Senate obstruction that has been largely responsible for the slow pace of filling judicial vacancies in the Obama administration:
On the occasions when it has confirmed nominees to the bench, the Senate has slowed down the process to the point of absurdity. During the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, District Court nominees were confirmed in an average of 25 days. Under President Obama, the wait has averaged 104 days. For Circuit Court judges, the time has increased six-fold, from 26 days to 163 days on average.
Senators need only to look to Arizona to see the real impact that playing politics with judicial nominations has on the ability of citizens to get prompt access to justice.
There may be a politically active extremist serving as a sheriff in Arizona. But it’s not Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. On the day of the horrific shootings in Tucson that killed 6, critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and injured 13 others, Sheriff Dupnik, visibly shaken, decried the vicious tone that politics has taken recently, especially in his state. He blamed nobody for the murders but the murderer. But, he said, it was time for some national “soul searching.”
When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.
Let me say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences.
Many on the Right saw these remarks and reacted not with an honest discussion of responsibility in political speech, but with a campaign to demonize the sheriff. People For’s Right Wing Watch blog has been reporting these reactions…from statements that Sheriff Dupnik was “politicizing” tragedy to implying that the sheriff wants the killer to go free.
People For’s president, Michael Keegan, responded to the smears on Sheriff Dupnik in the Huffington Post yesterday:
Unfortunately, "civil discourse" is exactly what's lost when calls for honesty and responsibility are demonized and belittled. Nobody but Loughner can be blamed for Saturday's violence. But that does not absolve any of us from the duty to consider the impact of our words and to approach political discourse with honesty and responsibility. Sheriff Dupnik deserves to be thanked, not demonized, for telling that uncomfortable truth.
Those who talk openly and honestly about the dangerous strains in our national political discourse and work to start a more responsible political debate aren't politicizing tragedy--they're working to prevent it. Political figures owe this to all of us who want to participate in democracy without fearing for our safety: those who denounce violence should also denounce the rhetoric that can incite it.
We’re asking those who want to stand in solidarity with the sheriff to sign this letter of support: http://site.pfaw.org/site/PageServer?pagename=sheriff