Judicial vacancies slow down courts’ work, drive up litigation costs, cause evidence to go stale, make it harder to settle civil cases, and even pressure defendants into pleading guilty, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center. The report cites example after example of how not having enough judges erodes our nation’s system of justice. Everyone counts on having their day in court, a fundamentally American principle that is threatened by persistent vacancies. The report quotes Chief Judge William Skretny of New York’s Western District:
We don’t neglect the Seventh Amendment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.
Heavier caseloads and backlog created by vacancies also take a toll on judges, reducing the amount of time they have to spend on each case.
Chief Judge [Leonard] Davis in the Eastern District of Texas described the situation in his district as “simple math.” With more cases “you have less time to give to [an individual] case,” he explained. “It affects the quality of justice that’s being dispensed and the quantity of work you can complete,” he added.
[Judge Davis] also highlighted the impact of the Sherman vacancy on the timing of sentencing. “It’s a hardship for the litigants,” he explained. “Due to the backlog and [the] vacancy [in Sherman], we have a very high population of criminal defendants, about 200, sitting in county jails, having pled guilty and waiting for sentences. They can’t get their cases processed.” He noted that inmates are typically housed in a county jail because there are no federal facilities available, which is more costly for the government and leaves inmates with fewer work and educational opportunities. “That’s not fair to [the inmates] and adds a great deal of unnecessary cost by having to house them for so long in county jail holding facilities,” he said.
As the report makes clear, vacancies have real impacts for all citizens. This is why PFAW supports the speedy confirmation of qualified judicial nominees to federal courts. Filling judicial vacancies with quality judges will reduce backlogs and costs while allowing the judicial system to better serve all Americans. Maintaining the third branch is one of the most important constitutional functions that the Senate performs.
On Monday, People For the American Way joined allied organizations and activists of the NY4Democracy coalition for a rally and lobby day at the Albany state house urging New York lawmakers to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, McCutcheon, and related cases.
Over 100 activists joined the efforts, targeting state senators of all political persuasions to ask for their support in elevating the issue and calling for an amendment. The group gathered in the morning to lobby senators and their staff, held a press conference at noon, and continued lobbying afterwards. In total, NY4Democracy activists met with 32 senate offices.
Click here to view a local news story about the lobby day.
Click here to view an interview with People For the American Way legislative representative Calvin Sloan on the Capital Tonight show.
(Photo credit Tony Cresswell)
(Photo credit Tony Cresswell)
(People For the American Way legislative representative Calvin Sloan -- Photo credit Tony Cresswell)
(Public Citizen’s director of the Democracy is For People campaign, Jonah Minkoff-Zern -- Photo credit Tony Cresswell)
(Move To Amend New York state coordinator, Victor Tiffany -- Photo credit Tony Cresswell)
(Communication Workers of America policy and legislative coordinator Joe Mayhey -- Photo credit Tony Cresswell)
If successful, NY4Democracy will help New York join the growing chorus of state and municipalities that have already called for an amendment. To get involved with the campaign, please email email@example.com with the subject line, “NY4Democracy.”
On Monday, People For the American Way joined ally organizations in the New York for Democracy Coalition in Albany to urge state lawmakers to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC. If successful, New York would become the 17th state to go on record in support of such an amendment, joining a rapidly growing nationwide movement to reclaim our democracy.
People For the American Way’s legislative representative Calvin Sloan joined Nick Reisman on Capital Tonight to discuss the efforts underway in New York – and across the country – to fight back against the outsized influence of big money in our political system.
Barbara “Bobbie” Handman, a former Vice President of PFAW and PFAW Foundation, died on Thursday. For years, Bobbie’s creative energy and fierce commitment to the First Amendment shaped the organizations’ free expression work from New York City, where she was based. Bobbie’s long record of advocacy for free expression and the arts was recognized in 1998 when she received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton.
Bobbie’s years at PFAW were part of a long life of political activism. Time after time she responded to would-be censors by rallying well-known actors and writers to participate in public events that affirmed the value of artistic freedom. You can read more about Bobbie’s life and work in the obituary that appears in today’s New York Times. It ends with this quote from Norman Lear: “Bobbie was a lifelong lesson in perseverance. She made New York happen for People For the American Way. And she made everything grander. She dealt in grand.”
People For the American Way extends its heartfelt condolences to Bobbie’s husband Wynn Handman and the rest of their family.
The state of New York has become an embarrassing example of what can happen when money is allowed to rule politics. Earlier this month, for instance, two state lawmakers were arrested on corruption charges. It's a story that has become all too familiar in Albany, where a pervasive culture of corruption has led to the convictions of at least 13 state elected officials in the last ten years.
But New York and its governor, Andrew Cuomo, now have an opportunity to shed the state's pay-to-play image and lead the nation in fighting corruption. Good government advocates are pushing for the state to adopt a public financing system based on one that has met with success in New York City. The plan, which would provide matching funds for small donors, would help give candidates without big party or corporate backing the chance to compete in statewide elections. It would allow more voices to be heard in the political process and ensure that elected offices won't be handed to the highest bidder.
The Syracuse Post-Standard, in endorsing the measure, wrote, "There will always be more pressing spending priorities for taxpayer money. But when those priorities are thrown out of whack by the influence of big money on our politicians, something fundamental has to change." And all too often in New York, the priorities of voters are being superseded by the priorities of big campaign donors.
Shortly after the latest scandal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill to increase the penalties on state lawmakers accused of graft. That measure is useful, but on its own is not enough to change the culture in Albany. The public financing proposal, which would provide a meaningful solution to the problem of big money in New York politics, needs the governor's active support. So far, although supportive, Gov.Cuomo has not expended the energy in support of the measure needed for it to pass. He now has the chance to weigh in more forcefully and distinguish himself as a national leader on clean elections. With his full-throated endorsement, the measure would have a strong chance of becoming law, and New York could go from being one of the clearest examples of corrupt government to become a national model of reform.
Since the Supreme Court's outrageous Citizens United decision, which unleashed unlimited and unaccountable corporate spending into national politics, Americans have become increasingly wary of big-money influence in elections. A poll late last year found that 90 percent of Americans thought there was too much money in politics -- true bipartisan agreement! 84 percent agreed that "corporate money drowns out the voices of ordinary people." That's a lot of distrust from almost everybody in this country.
As a national movement to overturn Citizens United gains support, states and cities are leading the way with innovative and popular good government measures. New York, with Gov. Cuomo's support, could go from being a symbol of corruption to having some of the strongest clean elections laws in the country. That would be quite an enduring legacy.
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 continue to reveal the 2012 endorsed candidates of PFAW’s Young Elected Progressives program, here are three more great individuals, 35 or younger, running for office: Andrew Gounardes (NY), Micah Z. Kellner (NY) and Tim Keller (NM).
Andrew Gounardes is running to represent Brooklyn in the New York Senate. He currently serves as a member of Community Board 10 in New York City and is an attorney for the Citizens Committee, a non-profit organization focusing on providing funds for neighborhood improvement. When in school, Gounardes was the first Student Advisory Member to the Panel for Education Policy in New York City and he later worked as a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Robert Menendez. If elected, Gounardes will use his leadership experience to pass legislation improving public education, campaign finance laws and more. Visit his website here.
Micah Z. Kellner
Micah Z. Kellner is running for reelection to the New York Assembly. He has been serving in the Assembly since 2007 and has proven to be a great progressive leader. Kellner is a member on several committees including the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection and the Committee on Cities. He has been a strong advocate for the disabilities community, as well as for marriage equality and reproductive freedom. Kellner also has fought for increases in the quality of public education through increased funding and is a champion for the middle class, as well, with efforts to make housing more affordable for all New Yorkers. Visit his website here.
Tim Keller is running for reelection to the New Mexico Senate. After graduating from college, Keller established Data Digital Divide, which helps land mine victims in Cambodia. Upon moving back home to New Mexico, he began working for Booz and Company, a management and strategy firm, and eventually rose to the position of Senior Manager. He has built up a strong record in office and with his business experience, has fought to put New Mexicans back to work and improve the economy. Keller was elected to the Senate in 2008 and has been named to multiple committees including: Education, Military & Veterans’ Affairs and is the Chair of Science, Technology & Telecommunications. Visit his website here.
People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network supports the work of over 600 young, progressive elected officials around the country. One of them, 24-year-old Ithaca, New York mayor Svante Myrick told his story on NBC’s Rock Center last night:
Featured along with Mayor Myrick are two of his fellow YEO Network members – who are also his roommates: City Councilmember Eddie Rooker and County Legislator Nate Shinagawa.