The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved the nomination of Sri Srinivasan to sit on the powerful Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. There are currently four vacancies on the D.C. Circuit – and Senate Republicans have prevented President Obama from filling a single one.
The Senate GOP has been unusually cooperative with Srinivasan’s nomination, but have signaled that they will not be so friendly to future nominees to the court. Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley is actually trying to permanently lower the number of judgeships on the court to prevent President Obama from reversing its far-right, anti-consumer, anti-worker tilt.
The Senate yesterday also confirmed William Orrick to serve on the District Court for the Northern District of California, a seat that had been officially designated a “judicial emergency” because of its overworked courts. The confirmation vote came a full eight months after Orrick was first approved with bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In a Senate floor speech Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts discussed the Senate GOP’s extraordinary obstruction of federal judicial nominees, noting the high level of officially-designated “judicial emergencies,” which has risen by 30 percent since the beginning of the year.
The Founders of our Republic gave to the President the task of nominating individuals to serve and gave us the responsibility to advise on and consent to these appointments. For more than 200 years this process has worked.
Presidents over the years have nominated thousands of qualified men and women who were willing to serve in key executive branch positions.
The Senate has considered nominations in a timely fashion and taken up-or-down votes. Of course, there have been bumps along the way, but we have never seen anything like this. Time and again, Members of this body have resorted to procedural technicalities and flatout obstructionism to block qualified nominees.
At the moment, there are 85 judicial vacancies in the U.S. courts, some of which are classified as ``judicial emergencies.'' That is more than double the number of judicial vacancies at the comparable point during President George W. Bush's second term. Yet right now there are 10 nominees awaiting a vote in the Senate, and they have not gotten one.
Senate Republicans like to blame the judicial vacancy crisis on President Obama, whom they say has not been quick enough to nominate judges. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas ran into the fallacy of this talking point last week, when he was called out for blaming the president for Texas vacancies that Cornyn himself was responsible for.
The president continued his steady pace of federal judicial nominations last night, nominating four women to federal judgeships in Utah, Tennessee, New York and Mississippi.
UPDATE: The White House points out in a blog post today that President Obama has now nominated more district court judges than had President Bush at this point in his presidency.
The Huffington Post clips this exchange from yesterday’s meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting yesterday, which pretty much encapsulates the gridlock that Republicans have inflicted on the Senate during the Obama administration:
HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery summarizes the exchange between Texas Republican John Cornyn and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee:
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Cornyn was arguing for more immigration judge slots in Texas when he got called out by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) for gumming up the district court nomination process. Immigration judges are different from district court judges, but Whitehouse questioned why the Senate should add more immigration judgeships in Texas if Cornyn isn't trying to fill empty district court slots there.
"I don't see why you need additional judges when there have been multiple vacancies that have been left without nominees for years," Whitehouse said. "I have an issue with that."
Cornyn said his answer to that was "simple:" It's Obama's fault.
"The president's got to nominate somebody before the Senate can act on it," Cornyn said.
But the process for approving a new district court judge, per longstanding tradition, begins with a senator making recommendations from his or her state to the president. The president then works with that senator to get at least some of the nominees confirmed -- the idea being that those senators, regardless of party, are motivated to advocate for nominees from their states. The White House may look at other nominees on its own, but typically won't move forward without input from home state senators.
That's when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) stepped in to remind Cornyn what he already knows: that if he wants to see movement on district court nominees, he needs to make recommendations to the president.
"Based on 38 years experience here, every judgeship I've seen come through this committee during that time has followed recommendations by the senators from the state," Leahy said. "You have to have recommendations from the senators, especially since I've been chairman, because ... as the senator from Texas knows, if senators have cooperated with the White House and the White House sends somebody they disagree with ... I have not brought the person forward, even when it's been importune to do so by the White House."
Cruz tried to absolve himself of the matter altogether, saying he just got to the Senate in January.
In short, Cornyn was blaming President Obama for gridlock that Cornyn himself has created. In fact, Texas has eight current federal judicial vacancies, one dating back as far as 2008. All are on courts so overworked that they have been labeled “judicial emergencies.” Thanks to Cornyn and Cruz, not one of those vacancies has a nominee.
And in July, one more vacancy will open up in a district court seat based in Fort Worth. When it comes open, Fort Worth will be reduced to just one active federal judge for the first time in over two decades.
As a freshman in high school I approached my principal to request a space to perform one of the five mandatory Muslim prayers that happened to start and end during school hours. I had been praying for years in school and thought nothing of it, until she said no. As unfortunate as her response was, I was lucky for two reasons. The first was that there were laws in place that protected me from facing this type of discrimination, and I was eventually allowed to pray in school thanks to the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. The second reason is that experience was transformative and opened my eyes not only to the struggles of other Muslim Americans, but to all groups who face discrimination. As lucky as I was with my specific situation, I soon realized that not every group had legal recourse in situations arising from discrimination.
Yesterday, over nine years after my high school experience, I went to the office of US Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) to lobby for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). I, along with two other constituents from the Lone Star State, met with a staffer to discuss our desire for the senator to support this legislation that would protect the millions of Americans who identify as LGBTQ. We explained that current legislation does not extend to LGBTQ individuals in the workforce who face discrimination and action must be taken to protect the rights of these millions of Americans. We each told her why this issue matters to us individually – I told her about my experience seeking time to pray in high school. She explained a number of factors that might keep the senator from supporting ENDA, including states’ rights concerns and the timing around the election. She also reminded us how long the process has been for previous groups trying to secure equal rights in America.
But why does this group of Americans needs to wait any longer to enjoy equal rights? We need our senators and representatives to be leaders. The rights of minority groups may not always be popular with the majority, but leadership on a federal level is required to protect those rights, just as it was and remains necessary with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. LGBTQ individuals should be able to walk into their places of employment or prospective employment and not fear that who they are is going to result in discrimination – and they should be able to do so today. I call on Sen. John Cornyn and every other member of Congress to get one small step closer to ending discrimination by passing ENDA. It’s the American thing to do.
On Wednesday night, Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu wrote to President Obama asking that the his nomination to sit on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals be withdrawn. Liu’s exit was the culmination of two years of smears, scapegoating and filibustering, in which the nominee never even got an up or down vote from the Senate.
The main gist of Republican opposition to Liu was the claim that he would be an “activist judge” in favor of making up constitutional rights willy-nilly (a claim that Republicans in the Senate have lobbed at any number of highly qualified judicial nominees, including current Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan, but interestingly not at Republican nominees who have shown strong streaks of creative legal interpretation).
In an op-ed earlier this week, the New York Times singled out Sen. John Cornyn for his false claim that Liu holds the “ridiculous view that our Constitution somehow guarantees a European-style welfare state.” Yesterday, in a letter to the editor, Cornyn fought back, providing this quote from a 2006 law review article by Liu to back up his claim:
On my account of the Constitution’s citizenship guarantee, federal responsibility logically extends to areas beyond education. ... Beyond a minimal safety net, the legislative agenda of equal citizenship should extend to systems of support and opportunity that, like education, provide a foundation for political and economic autonomy and participation. The main pillars of the agenda would include basic employment supports such as expanded health insurance, child care, transportation subsidies, job training and a robust earned income tax credit.
What is interesting about this quote is that it doesn’t say what Cornyn says it says. At all. Nowhere in the quote -- which Cornyn points to as decisive evidence that Liu wants the courts to turn us into Denmark -- does Liu say that the courts should enforce a social safety net. In fact, Liu is careful to specify that he is discussing the duty of Congress to create a “legislative agenda” that fulfills the highest ideals of the Constitution, rather than a judicial responsibility to enforce that agenda.
Elsewhere in the article [pdf], Liu makes it perfectly clear that he sees it as the duty of Congress, not the courts, to guarantee basic living standards for citizens. He even explicitly states that he intentionally doesn’t use the term “rights” because that would imply “judicial enforceability” of the values that he’s discussing:
In this Article, I do not address whether the Supreme Court or any court should hold that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees an adequate education. Although that question remains open in the case law, my thesis is chiefly directed at Congress, reflecting the historic character of the social citizenship tradition as “a majoritarian tradition, addressing its arguments to lawmakers and citizens, not to courts.” Whatever the scope of judicial enforcement, the Constitution—in particular, the Fourteenth Amendment—speaks directly to Congress and independently binds Congress to its commands. Thus the approach to constitutional meaning I take here is that of a “conscientious legislator” who seeks in good faith to effectuate the core values of the Fourteenth Amendment, including the guarantee of national citizenship.
From this perspective, the language of rights, with its deep undertone of judicial enforceability, seems inapt to probe the full scope of a legislator’s constitutional obligations. As Professor Sager has observed, “[T]he notion that to be legally obligated means to be vulnerable to external enforcement can have only a superficial appeal.” It is more illuminating to ask what positive duties, apart from corresponding rights, the Fourteenth Amendment entails for legislators charged with enforcing its substantive guarantees. Framed this way, the inquiry proceeds from the standpoint that Congress, unlike a court, is neither tasked with doing legal justice in individual cases nor constrained by institutional concerns about political accountability. Instead, “Congress can draw on its distinctive capacity democratically to elicit and articulate the nation’s evolving constitutional aspirations when it enforces the Fourteenth Amendment.” By mediating conflict and marshaling consensus on national priorities, including the imperatives of distributive justice, Congress can give effect to the Constitution in ways the judicial process cannot.
Thus the legislated Constitution, in contrast to the adjudicated Constitution, is not “narrowly legal” but rather dynamic, aspirational, and infused with “national values and commitments.” …
(emphasis is mine)
Cornyn and his pals in the Senate know what was in the article they attacked. Liu even explained it to them in detail in response to written questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee [pdf]. But it was easier to willfully misinterpret Liu's writing and paint him as irresponsible than to engage in a substantive debate on his qualifications.
Sen. John Cornyn, in his boilerplate remarks about the “judicial activism” conservatives like to associate with Elena Kagan, attempted to throw the Solicitor General’s own words back at her. Kagan, Cornyn insisted, would not rely on the “Constitution ratified by the American people and the laws passed by Congress,” but rather that she would solve tensions “between her Constitutional values” using “her prudence and judgment.” (He demonstrated his contempt for “prudence” and “judgment” by spitting the words out in disgust).
This is what Kagan actually said, in a written response to questions from Cornyn:
Question: In Confirmation Messes, Old and New, 62 U. Chi. L. Rev. 919, 932 (1995), you wrote that “many of the votes a Supreme Court Justice casts have little to do with technical legal ability and much to do with conceptions of value.”
a. Please explain in greater detail what you meant in this statement.
Response: I was referring to constitutional values, by which I mean the fundamental principles articulated and embodied in our Constitution. In some cases, constitutional values point in different directions, and judges must exercise prudence and judgment in resolving the tension between them. In doing so, judges must always look to legal sources—the text, structure, and history of the Constitution, as well as the Supreme Court’s precedents—not to their own personal values, political beliefs, or policy views.
Kagan wasn’t talking about tension in her own values—she was talking about the tension inherent in the values of the Constitution. For more on that point, Cornyn might want to read former Justice David Souter’s excellent explanation of this principle, or even just sit down and read a few recent Supreme Court cases, which typically get to the Court precisely because they embody hard-to-resolve tensions between constitutional values.
He might also want to re-watch Kagan’s debunking of the John Roberts doctrine of the judge-as-umpire, in which she patiently explains that “judging requires judgment':
We were far from the only ones noting the surprising volume of GOP attacks on Justice Thurgood Marshall on Monday. Talking Points Memo counted the number of references to the illustrious Justice on the opening day of Kagan’s hearings:
In an example of how much the GOP focused on Marshall, his name came up 35 times. President Obama's name was mentioned just 14 times today.
Harpers Magazine shared my confusion about what might have motivated Republican Senators to engage in these attacks:
So what made Marshall the image of an “activist judge”? Was it his role in Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that put an end to the lie of “separate but equal” education across the American South, forcing desegregation in public education? Or perhaps it was the fact that he won nearly all of his Supreme Court cases, most of them on behalf of the NAACP, and all of them testing the official refuges of bigotry and racism?
The attacks were led, predictably, by neoconfederate senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Republican ranking member and the Theodore Bilbo of his generation, who snarled that Kagan’s affection for her former boss “tells us much about the nominee”—a comment clearly intended as an insult. But so many other Republican senators joined in—Orrin Hatch, John Cornyn, and Jon Kyl, for instance—that it appears to have been an agreed talking point. (I see Dana Milbank reports that Republican staffers were actually handing out opposition research on Marshall’s voting record after the hearing–another sign that the war on Marshall was a formal strategy.)
At first it was unclear to me what possible complaint about Justice Marshall the Republican Senators could have had. But Dana Milbank at the Washington Post cleared things up:
Republicans saw trouble in this Marshall fellow. "In 2003, Ms. Kagan wrote a tribute to Justice Marshall in which she said that, 'in his view, it was the role of the courts in interpreting the Constitution to protect the people who went unprotected by every other organ of government,' " Kyl complained.
Protecting the unprotected? Say it ain't so!
And that wasn't all. Kagan also emphasized Marshall's "unshakable determination to protect the underdog," Kyl said.
Let’s take a moment to remember all the great things Justice Marshall did for this country. Stephanie Jones’ thoughtful piece in the Washington Post this morning details his vital role in fulfilling the promises of the Constitution. She summarizes:
Marshall was a great jurist who used his skills to move this country closer to being a more perfect union. As a lawyer and a justice, he protected us from activist judges and the cramped thinking of politicians who tried to keep our country in the muck. And he never forgot how the high court's rulings affect the least of us.
So what do Republicans have to gain from attacking this giant? Out west at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, columnist Joel Connelly reminded us that attacks on Marshall are just part of a larger right wing trend to de-legitimize American heroes with whom they disagree:
The political right has taken to beating up on great American presidents, with the "progressive" Theodore Roosevelt demonized by Fox's Glenn Beck, and Thomas Jefferson ordered banished from textbooks by the Texas Board of Education.
At confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, Senators from the party of Abraham Lincoln have discovered -- literally -- a new black hat. They are denouncing and labeling Thurgood Marshall, our country's greatest civil rights lawyer.
UPDATE: even conservatives are perplexed by the Republicans' anti-Marshall strategy. Check out Joe Scarborough mocking Senate Republicans:
Sen. John Cornyn was waxing indignant a few minutes ago about what he calls the “activist vision” of certain judicial nominees.
He helpfully defined his terms:
“This activist vision takes the power from the people to make the law and change the law and gives it to the judiciary.”
Cornyn was no doubt shocked, then, by the Rehnquist Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, in which it called off the counting of votes in a presidential election. Or by the Roberts Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, in which it limited the power of democratically elected bodies to make rules about who spends money in elections.
It must be difficult for Cornyn to see judges appointed by presidents of his own party fall into that kind of activism.
In President Obama's first few days in office, he has already undone some serious damage from the previous administration with the stroke of a pen. He signed orders to close Guantanamo and the CIA's network of secret foreign prisons. And he repealed the global gag rule prohibiting U.S. dollars and contraceptive supplies from going to any international family planning program that provides abortions or counsels women about their reproductive health options. He's nominated stellar candidates to run the government, many of whom have been confirmed and started their work.
President Obama's inauguration this week was enthusiastically celebrated by Americans of all political stripes. Even many former Bush supporters have embraced President Obama and agree that the country needs to move beyond partisanship and division. President Obama's high approval ratings are a clear indication that Americans are willing and ready to do what's needed to heal our economy, restore our good standing in the world and meet the enormous challenges we face.
Unfortunately, it seems that not quite everyone is ready to move forward with us. On Wednesday, led by Sens. Arlen Specter and John Cornyn, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed a committee vote on Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder. Blocking confirmation of this historic nominee is exactly what Americans don't need or want. Whatever political assurances they may be seeking from Holder before he takes the reins at the DOJ, as attorney general, Holder's only commitments should be to the Constitution, the law and the American people (commitments he has already demonstrated that he will honor).
Some of these same Senate Republicans even tried to play partisan games with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, using their ability to offer amendments to slow the legislation. But I am happy to report that last night the Senate passed it! Thank you to all of you who took action over the last few years in support of the bill -- this is a tremendous victory. Next up: the Paycheck Fairness Act! Stay tuned for more on that as we keep up the pressure to get that through the Senate.
Eric Holder's confirmation. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. These are things worth fighting for. We can't count on any party or branch of government to always to do the right thing, but when they do, we need to be there to block for them -- to make sure we're countering the opposition who would deter progress and the restoration of constitutional values to our government.