judicial nominees

Chief Justice Roberts Urges Senate to Confirm Judicial Nominees

Chief Justice John Roberts called on Friday for Senate Republicans to stop playing politics with judicial nominees. Referring to “the persistent problem of judicial vacancies,” Roberts urged the president and the Senate to find a way to fill the growing number of vacancies in the federal courts:

“We do not comment on the merits of individual nominees,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote on Friday. “That is as it should be. The judiciary must respect the constitutional prerogatives of the president and Congress in the same way that the judiciary expects respect for its constitutional role.”

But he identified what he called a systemic problem.

“Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes,” he said.

The upshot, he said, was “acute difficulties for some judicial districts.”

The chief justice noted that the Senate recently filled a number of vacancies. Including 19 recently confirmed judges, the Senate has confirmed 62 of Mr. Obama’s nominees. There are 96 federal court vacancies, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

“There remains,” the chief justice wrote, “an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.”

Before the Senate left town for Christmas, it confirmed only 19 of the 38 judicial nominations that had been pending on its calendar. Many of the nominees, easily confirmed once their nominations reached a vote, had been waiting as long as a year just to get a vote from the Senate. Of the 19 nominees left on the calendar, the vast majority had little or no opposition from Republicans on the Judiciary Committee...but they all will start the confirmation process over again in the new year.
 

PFAW

Sessions Puts His Lab Coat Back On

Back in September, we wrote about Sen. Jeff Sessions’ discovery of what he called the “ACLU chromosome”—according to the senator, a common genetic defect that disqualifies bearers from the federal judiciary.

Well, Dr. Sessions is back at it. TPM has this video of Sessions ranting yesterday about the supposed prevalence of the “ACLU chromosome” in President Obama’s judicial nominees:

As Sen. Mark Udall later pointed out on the Senate floor, it’s unlikely that Sen. Sessions would have a similar reaction to a “Federalist Society chromosome”. While a few of President Obama’s nominees have had a history working with the ACLU—for instance, Edward Chen of California who worked to prevent discrimination against Asian Americans—President Bush made a point of packing the courts with judges who belonged to the far-right Federalist Society.

It’s absurd arguments like Sessions’ that are keeping qualified, well-respected nominees like Chen from even receiving an up or down vote in the Senate. While reports say that the Senate GOP has finally agreed to vote on 19 judicial nominees who they have been stalling despite little or no opposition to their confirmations, four nominees, including Chen, will be left out to dry without even a vote.

And, for the record, the ACLU had this to say about Sessions’ rant:

"Senator Sessions' reference to 'ACLU DNA' in President Obama's judicial nominees should be greeted as a welcome discovery by all Americans, regardless of party. For 90 years, the ACLU has defended the rights enshrined in the Constitution for everyone, regardless of their political beliefs. While not everyone agrees with us on every issue, Americans have come to rely on the ACLU for its unyielding dedication to principle."

"There is a long record of highly respected ACLU-affiliated lawyers who have been appointed to the federal bench, including luminaries such as Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. All have demonstrated their dedication to the Bill of Rights in important decisions supporting freedom of speech, the right to due process and gender and racial equality. There are also dozens of highly regarded district court and appellate court judges who have served or serve now on federal benches throughout the nation. Their ACLU background has helped them bring to the judicial system a steadfast commitment to constitutional values and an understanding of the critical role that the judiciary plays in safeguarding them."

"If you ask us, ACLU chromosomes make for a pretty remarkable gene pool," she added.


 

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Arlen Specter Denounces Roberts Court, Republican Obstructionism

In his farewell speech, US Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania called on Congress to move quickly to counter the burgeoning right-wing extremism of the Roberts Court and the Republican caucus. Specter, who was first elected to the US Senate in 1980 as a Republican, spoke about how the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has shown little respect for their own precedents or congressional fact-finding while pursuing a hard line pro-corporate bent. The increasingly conservative Court has consistently ruled in favor of corporations over the rights of workers and consumers, and the concerns of environmental protection and fair elections. Specter specifically pointed to the Roberts Court’s decision in Citizens United, which gave corporations the right to spend unlimited and undisclosed funds from their general treasuries in elections and overturned decades of Court precedents and congressional measures limiting corporate influence in politics. Specter said:

This Congress should try to stop the Supreme Court from further eroding the constitutional mandate of Separation of Powers. The Supreme Court has been eating Congress’s lunch by invalidating legislation with judicial activism after nominees commit under oath in confirmation proceedings to respect congressional fact finding and precedents, that is stare decisis.

The recent decision in Citizens United is illustrative: ignoring a massive congressional record and reversing recent decisions, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito repudiated their confirmation testimony, given under oath, and provided the key votes to permit corporations and unions to secretly pay for political advertising, thus effectively undermining the basic democratic principle of the power of one person, one vote.

Chief Roberts promised to just “call balls and strikes,” and then he moved the bases.

Specter also blasted Republican obstructionism in the Senate. He said that even though 59 Senators backed ending debate on the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required groups to publicly disclose their donors, the important bill never received an up-or-down vote due to Republican procedural moves:

Repeatedly, senior Republican Senators have recently abandoned long held positions out of fear of losing their seats over a single vote or because of party discipline. With 59 votes for cloture on this side of the aisle, not a single Republican would provide the sixtieth vote for many important legislative initiatives, such as identifying campaign contributors to stop secret contributions.

The Pennsylvanian later criticized the GOP for preventing judicial nominees from also having up-or-down votes:

Important positions are left open for months, but the Senate agenda today is filled with un-acted upon judicial and executive nominees. And many of those judicial nominees are in areas where there is an emergency backlog.

When discussing how Senate Republican leaders, such as Jim DeMint (R-SC), supported ultraconservative candidates against Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Bob Bennett (R-UT), and Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), Specter condemned the GOP’s embrace of “right-wing extremists,” adding: “Eating or defeating your own is a form of sophisticated cannibalism.”

PFAW

White House: Judicial Nominations are a Priority for Lame Duck

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday that pushing through stalled judicial nominations would be one of the president’s priorities in the last days of the lame duck session of Congress.

People For released a memo last week detailing why it’s important for the Senate to confirm all 38 stalled nominees immediately:

As the end of the 111th Congress approaches, 38 judicial nominees approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee are waiting for a vote on the Senate floor. Many of the nominees have been waiting for months, while a few have been waiting for almost a year.

Of these nominees:

  • 21 (55%) have been nominated to fill emergency slots.
  • 29(76%) are women or people of color.
  • 29 (76%) came out of committee without opposition and an additional 3 came out of committee with significant bipartisan support.

There’s no question that a majority of senators will vote to confirm every one of these nominees, and it’s unlikely that any of them would fail to garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles that the GOP has deployed on virtually every function the Senate has performed since President Obama took office. (This is doubly true considering that many members of the GOP have publicly asserted that filibusters of judicial nominees aren’t just wrong, but actually unconstitutional.)

Now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems to be offering Democrats a devil’s bargain: confirm a number of the nominees that don’t have any opposition at all, but send the rest back to the White House at the end of the Congress. The group being sent back to the White House will almost certainly include four of the eminently qualified – and mainstream -- nominees who have had the misfortune of being tagged as “controversial” by Republicans:

  • Rhode Island nominee John McConnell, who has been opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce for his willingness to represent victims of lead paint poisoning.
  • Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, whose work as a judge irked business interests so much, they spent $1 million to prevent his reelection.
  • U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen, who has been attacked for his work fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • And then, of course, Ninth Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu. As the New York Times editorial page has pointed out, the GOP’s resistance to Liu centers mainly around the fear that he’s so qualified, he might end up on the Supreme Court.

Senator Reid and his colleagues should call Senator McConnell’s bluff and start holding cloture votes on these nominees. The process will take time, but adding time to the calendar is entirely within the Democratic leadership’s purview. By confirming McConnell, Butler, Chen, and Liu, Senators can make clear that they will fight the unprecedented and enormously damaging obstruction of highly qualified judicial nominees. Walking away from these nominees delivers the confirmation process to the GOP: they’ll effectively block confirmable jurists without even having to go on record with their obstruction.

President Bush worked hard to pack the courts with far-right, Federalist Society judges. Confirming Obama’s picks will not only fill vacancies causing judicial emergencies and add much-needed diversity to the federal bench, it will prevent the federal bench from continuing to be dominated by Bush’s far-right appointments.

 

PFAW

The Long Term Cost of GOP Obstruction

Usually when we talk about Republican obstruction, it’s to explain the immediate problems that need to be fixed, but can’t because Republican Senators won’t let the solutions come up for a vote—an understaffed Department of Justice, empty seats languishing on the federal judiciary, an impending budget deadline, etc.

Currently, for example, there are 34 judicial nominees pending on the Senate floor, the vast majority of which are to fill vacancies deemed “judicial emergencies.” 26 of those nominees have faced no Republican opposition; one received only one negative vote - but all of them are held up anyway, waiting endlessly to start their new jobs.

But perhaps the most damaging effect of this delay won’t become apparent for years. Delaying simple confirmation votes forces nominees to put their lives on hold for months or even years, for a job with longer hours and less pay than they could find elsewhere. The excruciatingly long confirmation process is making it harder and harder to recruit qualified candidates to fill critical government positions.

Already, some nominees have decided that they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, deal with the ugly process any longer.

Dawn Johnsen, President Obama’s pick to head the Office of Legal Counsel, eventually withdrew her name because Republican senators so politicized her nomination that they undermined her primary goal of depoliticizing the OLC itself. Mary Smith, nominated to head the Tax Division of the Justice Department, asked for her name to be withdrawn when she concluded GOP obstruction would drag on for months longer. And any number of judicial nominees have displayed borderline heroism by sitting by silently as their reputations are smeared by critics playing fast and loose with the truth.

After seeing the treatment that even exceedingly well qualified nominees receive from the Senate, should it be any surprise if well qualified individuals in the future just decide that they don’t want the trouble?

Of course, if you’re in the business of attacking the Obama Administration at all costs, maybe scaring off qualified government officials isn’t a problem, it’s the goal.

 

PFAW

Where are the Women in the Federal Courts?

An ally just sent along this graph showing the progress of women in the federal judiciary over the past 10 years. What’s alarming about it is that, in terms of numbers, there has been very little progress at all:

President Obama’s judicial nominees have been the most diverse group in history. 44% of his nominees are women—twice as many as were nominated under George W. Bush. And 42% of his nominees are African American, Hispanic, or Asian American. But President Obama’s nominees, as diverse a group as they are, just aren’t making it to the courts. Instead, they’ve run into a concerted Republican effort to block every possible judicial nomination, no matter how uncontroversial. This filibuster campaign is not only creating personnel emergencies in courts across the country—it’s stopping qualified women and minorities from bringing a much-needed diversity of experience to the federal bench.

PFAW

Putting the "Lame" in Lame Duck

Republicans continue to make the case that they are the ones who serious about fixing the economy, shrinking the deficit and putting Americans back to work. This, as they gear up for endless witch hunts that will be make the Republicans' investigations into the Clinton administration in the 1990's look like a picnic... as they move to oppose extending unemployment insurance for millions of Americans in need... as they push to add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit with tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans.

Zach Carter at Campaign for America’s Future put it very succinctly last week when he wrote:

Economic sabotage is the essential Republican strategy for winning the White House in 2012. They will block every effort to actually improve the economy they can, and make a big show out of criticizing any economic aid they can't block.

Incredibly, the GOP is attacking Democratic efforts on the Hill to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell, pass the DREAM Act, confirm judicial nominees and pass the DISCLOSE Act as "distractions" from addressing economic concerns, while Republicans do all they can to block real progress on getting Americans back to work.

A report released today shows, conclusively, that the military is ready for gays and lesbians to serve openly. Ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a matter of basic fairness, our national character and national security. The same goes for the DREAM Act, which the Pentagon has said would strengthen the military in addition to offering a much-needed path to citizenship for hardworking immigrant youth. Confirming judges is essential to the country having a working justice system. Passing DISCLOSE is a matter of making sure American voters wield the power in our democracy and not corporations that hide behind shadowy front groups to buy elections.

These things are not distractions. They are essential to making sure Americans have a country that works... one in which their rights are protected and democracy thrives. Republicans want block these measures for the same reason they want to block economic assistance for Americans in need and policies which would strengthen the economy and create jobs. They know that what's good for America is bad for them politically, and for the next two years, everything we want to do that will be good for America will have to be done over the vigorous opposition of an ultra right-wing Republican Congress.

PFAW

Republican Judges Against Republican Obstruction

Add another set of voices to the growing chorus of Americans fed up with Republican leaders' unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominations: Federal judges nominated by Republican presidents. According to ThinkProgress:

[Last] week, seven Republican-appointed federal judges co-signed a letter warning of the consequences of the GOP's systematic obstruction of President Obama's judges. The letter [is] from the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit, which includes Republican appointees Alex Kozinski, Ralph Beistline, Vaughn Walker, Irma Gonzales, Frances Marie Tydingco-Gatewood, Richard Frank Cebull, [and] Lonny Ray Suko[.]

The letter states:

In order to do our work, and serve the public as Congress expects us to serve it, we need the resources to carry out our mission. While there are many areas of serious need, we write today to emphasize our desperate need for judges. Our need in that regard has been amply documented ... Courts cannot do their work if authorized judicial positions remain vacant.

While we could certainly use more judges, and hope that Congress will soon approve the additional judgeships requested by the Judicial Conference, we would be greatly assisted if our judicial vacancies - some of which have been open for several years and declared "judicial emergencies" - were to be filled promptly. We respectfully request that the Senate act on judicial nominees without delay.

Americans want a government that works. Why don't Senate Republican leaders agree?

PFAW

People For and Progressive Groups Urge Senate to Break Confirmation Gridlock

This week, People For and 46 other progressive groups sent a letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate urging them to end the backlog of judicial nominees before the end of this session of Congress. Republican obstruction has prevented dozens of nominees from even receiving a vote on the Senate floor, leaving the federal court system with over 100 vacancies and the slowing down the process of bringing more diversity to the federal bench. Read the full letter:

Dear Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell:

The undersigned organizations strongly urge you to end the troubling backlog of judicial nominees that exists to date in the 111th Congress. The obstruction of many of President Obama’s nominees through filibuster threats and anonymous “holds” is hindering the important work of our judicial branch, particularly in the many areas of our nation that now face judicial emergencies due to unfilled vacancies on the bench.

Throughout the 111th Congress, President Obama has worked with the Senate on a bipartisan basis to select extraordinarily well-qualified judicial nominees who could easily be confirmed by wide margins and begin serving the public, if brought to a vote before the full Senate. Yet a troubling number of these nominees, many of whom have been cleared by the Committee on the Judiciary with little or no opposition, have been blocked from up-or-down confirmation votes for reasons that defy explanation. Indeed, many of President Obama’s judicial nominees who have been confirmed, to date, have been confirmed by unanimous votes – but only after languishing for many months on the Senate floor, raising significant doubts about the legitimacy of the ongoing delays in confirmation proceedings.

Due to arcane floor procedures that allow a single member to impede the important business of the Senate, our judicial branch has reached a state of crisis. Out of 872 federal judgeships, 106 are currently vacant, with 50 of those vacancies now characterized as “judicial emergencies” in which courts are being overwhelmed by filings that cannot be considered. As a result, a growing number of Americans, from all walks of life and across all economic strata, are finding it increasingly more difficult to assert their legal rights and to have their fair day in court.

In the meantime, the Senate is badly failing in its constitutionally-mandated role of considering the nominees that President Obama has selected. Prior to entering its pro forma session, the Senate failed to confirm any of the 23 nominees who are currently pending on the Senate floor, 17 of whom advanced through the committee process with no opposition whatsoever. Moreover, 11 of the pending nominees would fill seats designated as judicial emergencies – and more than half of the pending nominees are people of color, while 10 of them are women, who would bring badly-needed and long-overdue diversity to our judicial branch.

We write to you at a time when our nation faces numerous challenges that cry out for bipartisan cooperation, including major economic challenges and continued international threats. We strongly believe that the continued obstruction of nominations will poison the political atmosphere, needlessly heighten partisan tensions, and make it far more difficult for the federal government to serve the public interest in any respect. These consequences are all but certain to continue into the 112th Congress and beyond.

For these reasons, in the remaining weeks of the 111th Congress, we strongly urge you to work together in a bipartisan fashion to proceed with confirmation votes on the two dozen judicial nominees who remain pending on the Senate floor. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

AFL-CIO

Alliance for Justice

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

American Association for Affirmative Action

American Association of People with Disabilities

American Association of University Women

American Federation of Government Employees

American Federation of Teachers

Americans for Democratic Action

Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum

Asian American Justice Center

Common Cause

Constitutional Accountability Center

Equal Justice Society

Families USA Foundation

Feminist Majority

Hispanic National Bar Association

Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary

Human Rights Campaign

Japanese American Citizens League

Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Lambda Legal

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

League of United Latin American Citizens

Legal Momentum

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

NAACP

NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.

National Asian Pacific American Bar Association

National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse

National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum

National Association of Consumer Advocates

National Association of Human Rights Workers

National Association of Social Workers

National Black Justice Coalition

National Congress of Black Women, Inc.

National Council of Jewish Women

National Disability Rights Network

National Employment Lawyers Association

National Fair Housing Alliance

National Partnership for Women & Families

National Urban League

National Women’s Law Center

OCA

People For the American Way

Secular Coalition for America

SEIU

Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

Sikh Coalition

 

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Former Bush Lawyer: Stop Partisan Bickering and Confirm Liu

The Blog of the Legal Times is reporting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning to call Senate Republicans on their obstruction of judicial nominees and break the gridlock that has kept four of these nominees pending, in some cases for over a year. Reid will attempt to stop the Republican filibuster of Ninth Circuit nominees Goodwin Liu and Edward Chen, Rhode Island District Court nominee John McConnell, and Wisconsin District nominee Louis Butler. 

This is a critical moment for these nominees, who despite support from their home-state senators and endorsements across the ideological spectrum, have for various reasons been branded as “too extreme” by obstructionist Republicans in the Senate. McConnell has been up against an expensive lobbying campaign from the Chamber of Commerce, which objects to his work as a public interest lawyer representing victims of lead paint poisoning. Butler has been up against business interests who don’t think he was friendly enough to them when he was on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Chen was accused by Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee of having an apparently disqualifying “ACLU chromosome.”

Liu’s nomination has been the subject of the most partisan squabbling. Liu’s main obstacle, it seems, has been his own brilliance: some on the Right worry that if he makes it on to the bench, he could eventually become a Supreme Court nominee. But Liu’s nomination is backed by legal luminaries from across the ideological spectrum, including former Bush White House lawyer Richard Painter, who today wrote another plea for the Senate GOP to break the judicial gridlock and at least take a vote on Liu’s nomination:

In any event, nominees who should not be controversial, including Goodwin Liu (I have made previous posts here on his nomination), are described as radical activists, the same tactic that advocacy groups deployed to mischaracterize many of President Bush’s nominees.

Public opinion of Members of Congress (both parties) these days is lower, far lower, than it was in the days when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge used just the right term to describe what he saw going on when Senators filibustered legislation. Those of us who care about the future of the judiciary should make it clear that the delay must stop.

This does not mean the Senators should vote "yes". They can vote "no". But they should vote.

Specific nominations aside, the federal judicial system in general has taken a drubbing under the Senate GOP’s refusal to confirm nominees. A new report from the Alliance for Justice has found that the number of vacancies in the federal judiciary has nearly doubled since President Obama took office, and that the number of open seats designated as “judicial emergencies” has risen from 20 to 50, affecting 30 states.

Confirmation votes will become much more difficult next year, with Democrats hanging on to a much slimmer majority in the Senate. Now’s the time to push through the nominees whom the GOP has been the most eager to obstruct.
 

PFAW

Survey Shows Obstacles to Justice in U.S. Courts

Dan Froomkin is reporting on a depressing new report that paints a frightening picture of just how difficult it is for ordinary Americans to receive justice in our courts. He discusses:

the finding[s] of a world-wide survey unveiled Thursday morning that ranks the United States lowest among 11 developed nations when it comes to providing access to justice to its citizens -- and lower than some third-world nations in some categories.

The results are from the World Justice Project's new "Rule of Law Index", which assesses how laws are implemented and enforced in practice around the globe. Countries are rated on such factors as whether government officials are accountable, whether legal institutions protect fundamental rights, and how ordinary people fare in the system. ...

But the most striking findings related to access to justice for ordinary people. ...

[The study] found a significant gap between the rich and the poor in terms of their use and satisfaction with the civil courts system.

Froomkin quotes from a World Justice Project news release:

[O]nly 40% of low-income respondents who used the court system in the past three years reported that the process was fair, compared to 71% of wealthy respondents. This 31% gap between poor and rich litigants in the USA is the widest among all developed countries sampled. In France this gap is only 5%, in South Korea it is 4% and in Spain it is nonexistent.

Unfortunately, it is no surprise that the wealthy and powerful are happier with our court system than are the rest of the American people. This is consistent with the analysis contained in a People For the American Way Foundation report released earlier this year. Citing Citizens United and numerous other cases, The Rise of the Corporate Court: How the Supreme Court is Putting Business First exposed the undue deference the Supreme Court has too often paid to corporations at the expense of the legal rights of individuals.

Making it even harder for average Americans victimized by powerful corporations to seek justice, one in eight seats on the federal bench is vacant. In fact, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has declared judicial emergencies in numerous circuits and districts where the vacancies have reached the crisis point. Yet Senate Republicans refuse to allow floor votes on qualified and unopposed judicial nominees to help relieve the overburdened federal judiciary.

The integrity of the entire judicial branch of the United States government is at risk.

PFAW

Why Are Republicans Opposing a Judiciary That Looks Like America?

With Republican Senators refusing to allow votes even on nominees who they do not oppose, they are depriving courts across the nation of the judges needed to ensure justice for all. In fact, the Senate recessed last week without confirming a single one of the 23 pending nominees approved by committee and ready for a floor vote. Eleven of these nominees – half the total – would fill vacancies officially designated as "judicial emergencies."

Amazingly, 17 of these 23 nominees advanced through committee without opposition, so it's not like there is any principled reason behind the Republican obstruction.

This slate of highly qualified nominees is a testament to the great diversity of our nation. Indeed, more than half of them are people of color, with six African Americans, three Latinos, and four Asian Americans among them. Ten of the 23 are women. Among the nominees needed to resolve judicial emergencies, two-thirds are people of color.

For much of our nation's history, judges were uniformly white men. When women argued for equality under the law, they were repudiated with sexist arguments that only men could have come up with. African Americans were told that separate can be equal. Native Americans were told that they never really owned the land they had been on for centuries, but were only in temporary possession of it until Europeans arrived.

A judiciary that looks nothing like America is far less likely to understand how the law affects other people, a misunderstanding that has often led to great injustice. As Republicans exacerbate judicial emergencies, their obstruction is preventing us from having a judiciary that looks more like America.

PFAW

Obama to Senate: Stop Playing Games with the Courts

On Wednesday night, the Senate left for recess without confirming a single one of the 23 judicial nominees who had been waiting for a vote, most of them for several months. The GOP blocked the majority of these nominees not because of ideology—19 were approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee—but just for the sake of obstruction. President Obama responded yesterday with this letter to Senate leaders:

Dear Senator Reid, Senator McConnell, Senator Leahy, and Senator Sessions:

I write to express my concern with the pace of judicial confirmations in the United States Senate. Yesterday, the Senate recessed without confirming a single one of the 23 Federal judicial nominations pending on the Executive Calendar. The Federal judiciary and the American people it serves suffer the most from this unprecedented obstruction. One in eight seats on the Federal bench sits empty, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has declared that many of those vacancies constitute judicial emergencies. Despite the urgent and pressing need to fill these important posts, a minority of Senators has systematically and irresponsibly used procedural maneuvers to block or delay confirmation votes on judicial nominees – including nominees that have strong bipartisan support and the most distinguished records. The minority has even been blocking non-controversial nominees – a dramatic shift from past practice that could cause a crisis in the judiciary.

The Judiciary Committee has promptly considered my judicial nominees. Nonetheless, judicial confirmation rates in this Congress have reached an all-time low. At this point in the prior Administration (107th Congress), the Senate had confirmed 61% of the President’s judicial nominations. By contrast, the Senate has confirmed less than half of the judicial nominees it has received in my Administration. Nominees in the 107th Congress waited less than a month on the floor of the Senate before a vote on their confirmation. The men and women whom I have nominated who have been confirmed to the Courts of Appeals waited five times longer and those confirmed to the District Courts waited three times longer for final votes.

Right now, 23 judicial nominees await simple up-or-down votes. All of these nominees have the strongest backing from their home-state Senators – a fact that usually counsels in favor of swift confirmation, rather than delay. Sixteen of those men and women received unanimous support in the Judiciary Committee. Nearly half of the nominees on the floor were selected for seats that have gone without judges for anywhere between 200 and 1,600 days. But despite these compelling circumstances, and the distinguished careers led by these candidates, these nominations have been blocked.

Judge Albert Diaz, the well-respected state court judge I nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, has waited 245 days for an up-or-down vote – more than 8 months. Before becoming a judge, Diaz served for over 10 years in the United States Marine Corps as an attorney and military judge. If confirmed, he would be the first Hispanic to sit on the Fourth Circuit. The seat to which he was nominated has been declared a judicial emergency. Judge Diaz has the strong support of both of North Carolina’s Senators. Senator Burr has publicly advocated for Judge Diaz to get a final vote by the Senate. And just before the August recess, Senator Hagan went to the floor of the Senate to ask for an up-or-down vote for Judge Diaz. Her request was denied.

We are seeing in this case what we have seen in all too many others: resistance to highly qualified candidates who, if put to a vote, would be unanimously confirmed, or confirmed with virtually no opposition. For example, Judge Beverly Martin waited 132 days for a floor vote – despite being strongly backed by both of Georgia’s Republican Senators. When the Senate finally held a vote, she was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit unanimously. Jane Stranch was recently confirmed by an overwhelming majority of the Senate, after waiting almost 300 days for a final vote. Even District Court nominees have waited 3 or more months for confirmation votes – only to be confirmed unanimously.

Proceeding this way will put our judiciary on a dangerous course, as the Department of Justice projects that fully half of the Federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020 if we continue on the current pace of judicial confirmations. The real harm of this political game-playing falls on the American people, who turn to the courts for justice. By denying these nominees a simple up-or- down vote, the Republican leadership is undermining the ability of our courts to deliver justice to those in need. All Americans depend on having well-qualified men and women on the bench to resolve important legal matters – from working mothers seeking timely compensation for their employment discrimination claims to communities hoping for swift punishment for perpetrators of crimes to small business owners seeking protection from unfair and anticompetitive practices.

As a former Senator, I have the greatest respect for the Senate’s role in providing advice and consent on judicial nominations. If there is a genuine concern about the qualifications of judicial nominees, that is a debate I welcome. But the consistent refusal to move promptly to have that debate, or to confirm even those nominees with broad, bipartisan support, does a disservice to the greatest traditions of this body and the American people it serves. In the 107th Congress, the Judiciary Committee reported 100 judicial nominees, and all of them were confirmed by the Senate before the end of that Congress. I urge the Senate to similarly consider and confirm my judicial nominees.

Back in June, President Obama made a similar plea in a meeting with Senate GOP leaders, but apparently bipartisan cooperation on something as straight-forward as filling seats in the judiciary wasn’t on their list of priorities.

(I also want to point out that while the GOP is holding up most of the 23 stalled nominees for absolutely no reason, there are a handful of nominees who certain GOP senators actively oppose. We’ve explored some of the reasons for this opposition here and here and here.)
 

PFAW

“The ACLU Chromosome” and other judicial disqualifiers

Politico today outlines an emerging trend in judicial obstruction. While partisan battles over judicial nominees have in past years focused on the occasional appellate court judge or Supreme Court justice, these days even nominees to lower-profile district courts are fair game for partisan obstructionism. Among other problems, this doesn’t make it easy to keep a well-functioning, fully staffed federal court system:

According to data collected by Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution and analyzed by POLITICO, Obama’s lower-court nominees have experienced an unusually low rate of confirmation and long periods of delay, especially after the Senate Judiciary Committee has referred the nomination for a confirmation vote by the full Senate. Sixty-four percent of the district court nominees Obama submitted to the Senate before May 2010 have been confirmed — a number dwarfed by the 91 percent confirmation rate for Bush’s district court nominees for the same period.

But analysts say the grindingly slow pace in the Senate, especially on district court nominations, will have serious consequences.

Apart from the burden of a heavier case load for current judges and big delays across the federal judicial system, Wheeler, a judicial selection scholar at Brookings, says that potential nominees for district courts may think twice before offering themselves up for a federal nomination if the process of confirmation continues to be both unpredictable and long.

"I think it means first that vacancies are going to persist for longer than they should. There’s just not the judge power that there should be," Wheeler said. And private lawyers who are not already judges may hesitate to put their practices on hold during the confirmation process, he added, because "you can’t be certain that you’ll get confirmed" for even a district judgeship, an entry-level position to the federal bench.

Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has been at the lead of the GOP’s obstruction of every judicial nominee who can possibly be obstructed. He told Politico that he simply wants to make sure every new federal judges passes his litmus test: "If they’re not committed to the law, they shouldn’t be a judge, in my opinion."

Sounds fair. But the problem is, of course, that Sessions’ definition of “committed to the law” is something more like “committed to the way Jeff Sessions sees the law.”

In a meeting yesterday to vote on eight judicial nominees-- five of whom were going through the Judiciary Committee for the second or third time after Senate Republicans refused to vote on their nominations--Sessions rallied his troops against Edward Chen, nominated to serve as a district court judge in California. Chen is a widely respected magistrate judge who spent years fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union. But Sessions smelled a rat: Chen, he said, has “the ACLU chromosome.”

The phrase really illuminates what Sessions and his cohort mean when they talk about finding judges “committed to the law” or who won’t stray from “the plain words of statutes or the Constitution.” It isn’t about an “objective” reading of the Constitution. It’s about appointing judges who will find ways to protect powerful interests like Exxon, BP, and the Chamber of Commerce, while denying legal protections to working people, women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and gays and lesbians.

(Sessions himself was nominated for a judgeship in 1986, but was rejected by a bipartisan majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee for his history of not-so-ACLU-like activity).

Sessions’ warns that “Democrats hold federal judiciary as the great engine of the left,” but the reality is far from that. Besides having the most conservative Supreme Court in decades, nearly 40% of all current federal judges were appointed by George W. Bush, who made a point of recruiting judges with stellar right-wing credentials.

No matter how much disarray it causes in the federal courts, it’s in the interest of Sessions and the Right Wing to keep the number of judicial seats President Obama fills to a minimum. If they succeed, they keep their conservative, pro-corporate courts, tainted as little as possible by the sinister “ACLU chromosome.”
 

PFAW

Hung out to dry

Republicans have given us a sneak peek of what they have in store for America if they succeed in taking over Congress on Election Day ... and it's not pretty.

On Tuesday, Republican senators voted in lockstep to block the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the DREAM Act... just yesterday, they voted in unity to block the DISCLOSE Act for the second time. Corporate special interests are drowning out the voices of regular voters by dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into this year's elections, and every single Republican voted to block a bill that would add some basic fairness by simply requiring disclosure of who is behind political ads. Every. Single. Republican.

The unprecedented obstruction just does not stop. President Obama's judicial nominees have been held up endlessly. In some cases, they've needed to be re-nominated and have multiple Judiciary Committee votes despite being approved by the Committee the first time. Some of these nominees even passed in Committee unanimously, with no Republican opposition, but the "Party of No" has been intent on blocking even the most uncontroversial nominees from the Senate floor. Meanwhile, there are vacancies on the federal courts -- 11 seats of the 23 pending on the nominations calendar -- that have been declared "judicial emergencies" by the Administrative Office of the Courts. Our judicial system is hurting and so is Americans' access to justice.

It's not just the Senate. Yesterday, the House passed legislation to help small businesses, but only because of the Democratic majority -- just like with the DISCLOSE Act in the Senate, every single Republican voted "no." This vote came on the very same day that the GOP House Leadership released its "Pledge to America" -- in the rollout, Minority Leader Boehner and his cohorts mentioned "small businesses" no fewer than 18 times. The hypocrisy is simply staggering.

In both the Senate and the House, Republicans have consistently opposed tax relief for small businesses and the middle class, justifying their obstruction with phony, hypocritical arguments about spending. Republicans have tried to block extensions of unemployment benefits and aid for homeowners to prevent foreclosures, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is even blocking a food safety bill that passed in the House with bipartisan support last summer and has overwhelming support from consumer groups. Meanwhile, Republicans are pushing to add billions, if not trillions, to the deficit by extending the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2%.

The Republicans have a clear agenda: to serve corporate special interests. They want to take back Congress but it's their policies that sunk our economy in the first place -- policies that encourage the outsourcing of jobs, allow Wall Street greed to go unchecked and punish middle and working-class families. They pretend to be on the side of small businesses because it's politically expedient, but even as they complain that letting the Bush income tax cuts expire for the top 2% hurts small business, the facts tell a different story as more than 98% of tax filers with small business income are not in that top 2% of the income tax. The Republican definition of "small business" is a mega corporation like Bechtel or PricewaterhouseCoopers. The only part of America to which they will ever make good on any "pledge" is Corporate America... and they'll do that at any cost. Perhaps that's why the GOP staffer who headed up the development of the "Pledge to America" was, up until April, a lobbyist for some of the most powerful oil, insurance and pharmaceutical and other corporate interests in the country -- including Exxon, AIG, Pfizer and the Chamber of Commerce.

So let's recap. Just this week, Republicans have proven their disdain for soldiers, students, the hurting middle class and even food consumers... Is there anyone they haven't left hung out to dry? Oh yeah... corporate special interests.

We can not put these people in charge again.

UPDATE: Add women to the groups of people Republican senators have hung out to dry just during the last weeks of September.

PFAW

The GOP Displays Effective Use of Taxpayer Dollars

The Senate Judiciary Committee this morning voted to approve seven federal judicial nominees. Four of these nominees are Judiciary Committee pros by now—they’ve already been approved by the committee, but were blocked by Senate Republicans, and had to start the nomination process all over again. Two are going through the process for the third time.

So what high ground is the GOP standing on in their months long blocking of these four nominees and insistence on holding the same debate multiple times?

Well, there are the objections to Rhode Island nominee John McConnell, who had the gall to represent victims of lead paint poisoning, and be proud of it.

Not to mention the record of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, whose work as a judge irked business interests so much, they spent $1 million to stop his reelection.

Then there’s the outrage against U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen for his work fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union.

And then, of course, there’s the all-out battle against Ninth Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu. As the New York Times editorial page points out today, the GOP’s resistance to Liu centers mainly around the fear that he’s so qualified, he might end up on the Supreme Court.

And these are just the nominees to which the GOP has been able to articulate some sort of objection. There are now 23 nominees waiting for votes on the Senate floor--17 of them made it through the Judiciary Committee without the objection of a single Republican.

Witness the trademark efficiency of the Party of No.
 

PFAW

Unprecedented Obstruction: Exhibit "A"

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse just made a forceful presentation at the Senate Judiciary Committee business meeting about the unprecedented obstruction currently being waged by Republicans against judicial nominees. The statistics are powerful: from 1949, when Senate rules were changed to provide for cloture votes on nominees, until 2009, only three cloture motions were filed on District Court nominees, and one of those was withdrawn.

By contrast, three District Court nominees were voted out of Committee for a second (John McConnell) or third (Edward Chen, Louis Butler) time today after Republicans refused to permit votes on their nominations and forced their re-nomination by the President--Exhibit "A" of this unprecedented obstruction.

PFAW

Senator Sessions Can’t Get His Stories Straight

In a “Critical Judiciary Alert” released today on Facebook (where else?), Senator Jeff Sessions went on the attack against five of President Obama’s judicial nominees that the GOP has worked overtime to obstruct.

The whole piece is a fine example of the out of context scare quotes and blatant distortions that are the stock in trade for Senate Republicans trying to block President Obama’s judges. But it seems that Senator Sessions can’t even keep his arguments in line for the length of one piece.

Take for instance, his attacks against Jack McConnell, a nominee for the District of Rhode Island.

After McConnell’s questionable theory of liability against lead paint manufacturers was unanimously rejected by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, he publicly attacked the decision as letting “wrongdoers off the hook,” revealing a preference for outcome-driven judicial decisions.

Setting aside the fact that fighting against the ingestion of lead paint by children is apparently not a good thing in the eyes of the GOP, Sessions clearly doesn’t like “outcome-driven” judicial decisions (although any lawyer not looking for a positive outcome for his client, as McConnell was doing, seems like a pretty poor attorney to me.) Got it. Outcome driven rulings = bad.

But then, take a gander at Sessions’ attack on Louis Butler, a nominee for the Second Circuit and a former state judge.

In one case, he held that a manufacturer could be held liable for injuries from a product that, as the dissent explained it, the manufacturer “may or may not have produced, which may or may not have caused the plaintiff’s injuries, based on conduct that may have occurred over 100 years ago when some of the defendants were not even part of the relevant market.”

Why, it sounds like Sessions doesn’t like the outcome! And this unhappy outcome is apparently reason to think the judge is doing a poor job. Outcome driven rulings = good?

So what does Senator Sessions want? Outcomes that go his way, or judges who ignore political pressure to rule according to the law?

Of course, there might be a third option: It doesn’t matter. Senator Sessions will say whatever it takes to block judges nominated by President Obama.

PFAW

Is “Eagerness to Obstruct” a Requirement for New GOP Senators?

Yesterday, former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte narrowly defeated Tea Party insurgent Ovide Lamontagne in the state’s Republican senate primary.

Ayotte is hardly a political moderate—Sarah Palin has anointed her a “Mama Grizzly”—but that didn’t keep her from being attacked from the right. One of Lamontagne’s charges against her? Ayotte said that if she were in the Senate she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Lamontagne’s full-on attack on Ayotte for conceding that Sotomayor was qualified to sit on the Supreme Court helped to propel him to within 2,000 votes of the much better-known, better-funded Ayotte. In addition to a lengthy screed on “Obama Judges” on his website, Lamontagne got a leg up from the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, which spent $50,000 on an ad campaign attacking Ayotte for her Sotomayor support.

Never mind that in 2009, a full nine Republican senators voted to confirm Sotomayor—including New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, who said of the nominee, “Her views and decisions, although strongly stated, are certainly not out of the mainstream of American jurisprudence or political thought."

Cooperating with the president to put moderate judicial nominees on the bench is apparently no longer a legitimate GOP position. Gregg (who is vacating the seat Ayotte is seeking) was one of only five Republicans to vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan this spring. But the Kagan vote was an example of outright bipartisan bonhomie compared with the GOP’s stand on lower court nominees. Fewer Obama nominees have made their way through the Senate than under any president since Nixon—in a large part the result of the GOP’s unified refusal to vote on even those nominees with no Republican opposition.

By the time the Kagan nomination came around, Ayotte had learned her lesson on moderate judicial nominees, and issued a statement panning the Solicitor General. Ayotte’s struggle shows the enormous amount of energy the Right is spending on obstruction as a strategy in itself—and the danger for those who occasionally try saying something other than “No.”

 

 

PFAW

Senators Set the Record Straight on Just Who the “Activist” Justices Are

A recent PFAW poll revealed that the vast majority of Americans are intensely concerned about the growing corporate influence in our country and disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. Judging from numerous remarks made during last week’s Senate hearings on Elena Kagan’s confirmation to the Court, it seems that many of our elected representatives feel the same way. Though Republicans attempted to vilify Kagan (and Thurgood Marshall!) with accusations of judicial activism, Democrats fired back, pointing out that in fact it is the conservative Court majority that has employed such activism in going out of its way to side with corporate America. Senators used the floor debate to decry the Roberts Court’s record of favoring corporations over individuals and its disregard for Congressional intent and legal precedent:

Senator Schumer:

The American people are reaping the bitter harvest from new laws that have been made and old precedents that have been overturned. Put simply, in decision after decision, this conservative, activist Court has bent the law to suit an ideology. At the top of the list, of course, is the Citizens United case where an activist majority of the Court overturned a century of well-understood law that regulated the amount of money special interests could spend to elect their own candidates to public office.

Senator Gillibrand:

Narrow 5-to-4 decisions by a conservative majority have become the hallmark of the Roberts Court. These decisions have often been overreaching in scope and have repeatedly ignored settled law and congressional intent. For example, in the Citizens United case, the Court not only disregarded the extensive record compiled by Congress but abandoned established precedent.

Senator Franken:

[A]bove the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court are four words, and four words only: ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ When the Roberts Court chooses between corporate America and working Americans, it goes with corporate America almost every time, even when the citizens of this country, sitting in a duly appointed jury, have decided it the other way. That is not right. It is not equal justice under the law.

Senator Leahy:

It is essential that judicial nominees understand that, as judges, they are not members of any administration . . . Courts are not subsidiaries of any political party or interest group, and our judges should not be partisans. That is why . . . the recent decision by five conservative activist Justices in Citizens United to throw out 100 years of legal developments in order to invite massive corporate spending on elections for the first time in 100 years was such a jolt to the system.

Senator Whitehouse:

On the Roberts Court, one pattern is striking, the clear pattern of corporate victories at the Roberts Court. It reaches across many fields—across arbitration, antitrust, employment discrimination, campaign finance, legal pleading standards, and many others. Over and over on this current Supreme Court, the Roberts bloc guiding it has consistently, repeatedly rewritten our law in the favor of corporations versus ordinary Americans.”

Senator Cardin:

Well, this Supreme Court, too many times, by 5-to-4 decisions by the so-called conservative Justices, has been the most activist Court on ruling on the side of corporate America over ordinary Americans.

Senator Dorgan:

What I have seen recently and certainly in the case of Citizens United—and I believe it is the case in Ledbetter v. Goodyear—the Supreme Court too often these days divides into teams. By the way, the team that seems to be winning is the team on the side of the powerful, the team on the side of the big interests, the team on the side of the corporate interests. That ought not be the way the Supreme Court operates.

 

PFAW