Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins signed on today as a cosponsor of a blatantly political bill meant to deny President Obama, unlike any of his predecessors, the ability to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The D.C. Circuit is the second most influential court in the country, behind the Supreme Court. It has the final word on scores of federal laws and regulations, from consumer protections to workers’ rights to environmental protections.
For more than 30 years, presidents of both parties have placed numerous judges on the D.C. Circuit:
Senate Republicans prevented President Obama from placing a single nominee on the court during his first term and the first four months of his second, despite the fact that one-third of its active judgeships were vacant. They were so eager to keep the court dominated by Republican-nominated judges that they twice filibustered President Obama’s first nominee to the court, the eminently qualified Caitlin Halligan. Yesterday, after a ten-month delay, the Senate finally confirmed an Obama nominee, Sri Srinivasan, to fill one of the court’s four vacancies. But Republicans are indicating that their cooperation will stop there.
Senate Republicans are not only vowing to block any Obama nominees to the remaining three seats on the D.C. Circuit, they are actually proposing a bill that would eliminate those three seats entirely in order to prevent President Obama from filling them.
The bill, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley and cosponsored by every other Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, just gained its first non-committee cosponsor: Sen. Collins.
The bill’s backers claim that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t have a great enough workload to justify filling the remaining three judgeships. However, Sen. Collins’ own voting record provides a perfect refutation of that argument.
Sen. Collins and her allies object to Obama’s filling the 9th, 10th and 11th seats on the D.C. Circuit. However, when George W. Bush was president, Sen. Collins had no such reservations about the need to fill the court's vacancies. In 2006, Collins voted to confirm Bush nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the 10th seat on the D.C. Circuit. In 2005, she voted to confirm Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown to the 10th seat on the court and Thomas Griffith to the 11th.
Following the Griffith confirmation, which Collins supported, the D.C. Circuit’s caseload was 119 cases per active judge. If every one of the D.C. Circuit’s 11 seats were filled today -- including the three seats that Sen. Collins wants to eliminate – the court’s caseload would be slightly higher than it was then, at 120 cases per active judge. Sen. Collins evidently thinks that what was a reasonable caseload for the court under President Bush is somehow wastefully low under President Obama.
Meanwhile, here is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse refuting Sen. Grassley’s absurd claim that President Obama is trying to “pack” the D.C. Circuit by filling its vacancies:
One of President Obama’s most important long-term achievements has been his concerted effort to bring qualified judicial nominees from a wide variety of backgrounds to the federal bench. 42 percent of President Obama’s confirmed judicial nominees have been women, compared with just 22 percent of those nominated by the second President Bush and 29 percent of those nominated President Clinton. Likewise, 46 percent of his confirmed nominees have been people of color, a dramatic change from the previous administration, in which 82 percent of federal judicial nominees were white. And President Obama has nominated more openly gay people to federal judgeships than all of his predecessors combined. (All of these numbers are available in this pdf from our friends at Alliance For Justice).
The four new judicial nominations that the White House announced last night are perfect examples of this effort to make the courts better reflect the people they serve. One, Judge Carolyn B. McHugh, who has been nominated to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, would be the first woman to sit on a federal appeals court in Utah. Pamela L. Reeves, nominated to the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Elizabeth A. Wolford, nominated to the Western District of New York, would be the first women to serve in their respective districts. And Debra M. Brown, nominated to the Northern District of Mississippi, would be the first African-American federal judge in her district and the first African-American woman to serve as an Article III judge in Mississippi.
Another important type of diversity among federal judges – one where there has been some progress but where there is still room for improvement – is diversity of professional background. Judges who have worked as public interest or legal aid attorneys bring a perspective to the bench that is different from that brought by prosecutors and litigators representing corporate clients. One example of this professional diversity is Iowa’s Jane Kelly, who was recently confirmed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals with unanimous bipartisan support from the Senate. An Associated Press profile yesterday explained the important perspective that Kelly will bring to the federal bench from her experience as a federal public defender:
The 48-year-old attorney has spent her career as a public defender representing low-income criminal defendants, a rarity in the ranks of appeals court judges who are often former prosecutors and trial judges. She'll become just the second woman in the 122-year history of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in seven states from Arkansas to the Dakotas.
Associates say she is a smart legal thinker who has zealously defended the rights of even the most publicly despised clients, including a notorious mailbox bombing suspect and the biggest white-collar criminal in Iowa history. Even prosecutors who disagreed with her in court praise Kelly, who will take the oath of office privately.
"Her story is compelling all the way around," said Debra Fitzpatrick of the University of Minnesota-based Infinity Project, which advocates for more women on the 8th Circuit. "Her credentials and her background and her career sort of set her up to be the right candidate at the right time."
A long-distance runner, Kelly's life almost ended when she went for a morning jog on the Cedar River Trail in June 2004. She was tackled and beaten by a male stranger, then dragged to a creek and left for dead. Passersby found Kelly in a pool of blood, in and out of consciousness and struggling to call for help. Speculation swirled that the attack was linked to Kelly's legal work, but no one ever was arrested.
Kelly quickly returned to representing criminal defendants after spending months in recovery. Her colleagues gave her the John Adams Award, which recognizes an Iowa lawyer's commitment to the constitutional right to criminal defense. And hundreds gathered one year later for a "Take Back the Trail" event, where Kelly jogged there again for the first time.
Kelly grew up in Newcastle, Ind., and graduated from Duke University in 1987. She earned a Fulbright scholarship to study in New Zealand before enrolling at Harvard, where she and Obama were acquaintances but not friends. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Donald Porter in South Dakota and then for Hansen.
She taught one year at University of Illinois law school before returning to Iowa as one of the first hires for the new public defender's office. She's been a fixture ever since, often representing "not the most popular person in the room," as she put it in her confirmation hearing, including drug dealers, pornographers and con artists.
Other pending nominees with public defender experience include Michael McShane (Oregon), Luis Felipe Restrepo (Pennsylvania), Jeffrey Schmehl (Pennsylvania), Rosemary Márquez (Arizona), and William Thomas (Florida).
Garrett Epps writes today in The Atlantic about how the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, still dominated by far-right George W. Bush nominees, has been instrumental in “the long, doleful transformation of the First Amendment from an individual right of conscience into a shield against business regulation.”
We've read of the violence done to the National Labor Relations Board by the D.C. Circuit's December decision in Noel Canning v. NLRB. Having read that opinion repeatedly, I believe it does violence to the Constitution as well. The D.C. Circuit last year voided a Food and Drug Administration regulation requiring graphic warning labels on cigarette labels as a violation of tobacco companies' "free speech" rights -- to me, another grave misstep. And I feel the same way about the Circuit's decision this week in National Association of Manufacturers v. NLRB. In this case, three Republican nominees held that the First Amendment's right against "compelled speech" protects employers against an NLRB regulation requiring them to post a government poster notifying workers of their rights. The decision is another step on the long, doleful transformation of the First Amendment from an individual right of conscience into a shield against business regulation.
We posted an infographic yesterday that shows just how ideologically skewed the D.C. Circuit is. George W. Bush made a concerted effort to pack the court with judges who shared his right-wing ideology (including John Roberts, who went on to be one of the top two most pro-corporate Supreme Court Justices in the past 65 years). In contrast, President Obama is the first president since Woodrow Wilson to not place a single judge on the court during his full first term.
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.
President Obama yesterday nominated three highly qualified candidates to federal district court judgeships in Illinois. The nominations of Colin Stirling Bruce, Sara Lee Ellis and Andrea R. Wood underscore the president’s commitment to bringing qualified, diverse candidates to the federal bench. Two of the three nominees, Ellis and Wood, are African-American women. Wood brings unique professional diversity to the bench: she currently works for the enforcement division of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which helps keep financial companies accountable to voters and consumers.
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.
Chris Kang, Senior Counsel to the President, notes on the White House blog that today markes the one-year anniversary of the day Third Circuit nominee Patty Shwartz was first approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That means that Shwartz, an experienced and respected attorney, has been waiting a full year simply for an up-or-down vote from the Senate. The ABA panel that evaluates the qualifications of judicial nominees unanimous gave her its highest possible rating. Not surprisingly for someone of her caliber, she has the strong support of Democrats and Republicans alike, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Kang writes that Shwartz’s experience is sadly not unusual in a Senate that’s been hamstrung by an obstructionist Republican minority:
Unfortunately, the delay for Judge Shwartz is not unique. Last week, my colleague wrote about Judge Robert Bacharach, who was recommended to the White House by one of his Republican home state Senators, but waited 263 days for a floor vote before being confirmed 93-0. And on Monday – after 347 days of delay -- the Senate will consider the nomination of Richard Taranto to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Overall, President Obama’s judicial nominees wait an average of 117 days on the Senate floor for a vote -- more than three times longer than President Bush’s judicial nominees, who waited an average of only 34 days. The Senate must promote the administration of justice by returning to the prompt consideration of judicial nominations. It should consider Judge Shwartz’s nomination without further delay, as well as the fifteen district court nominees awaiting votes. Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved five district court nominees. There is no reason they – and the others approved before them – should not be confirmed within 34 days.