Judiciary

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

The Party of No Lives Up to Its Name

Last night, in the latest episode of their passive-aggressive crusade to keep President Obama’s judicial nominees off the bench, the Senate GOP put on a mind-boggling display of obstruction.

As the Senate confirmed Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination, 21 other judicial nominees were waiting for Senate votes. More than half of these nominees had been approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee, and all had been waiting more than 100 days for confirmation.

After the Kagan vote, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell agreed to hold voice votes on four of the stalled nominees, and promised to agree to a vote on another—Jane Stranch, a Tennessee attorney who has been waiting more than a year for confirmation, despite having the support of both of her home state’s Republican senators-- in September.

The GOP sent five nominees back to the White House—meaning that the President will have to renominate them and start the process again.

That left eleven nominees in Senate limbo. Nine of them had received absolutely no opposition from either party in their Judiciary Committee hearings.

In an interview Monday, the National Journal asked McConnell about his party’s obstructionism. “Is the Senate broken?” the interviewer asked. McConnell answered:

No. Members frequently on both sides hold up a nominee because of some concern they have. It is more likely to be done if you are in the minority because the administration is not of your party and less likely to address your concern. This kind of give-and-take I have seen go on before. It is not any more dramatic now than it has been in the past, and this president has not been treated worse than the last one was. But it is always maddening to the majority and maddening to every president.

I must say the president even made it worse by recessing a guy like [Craig] Becker [to the National Labor Relations Board], who was defeated in the Senate. We had a vote. He was defeated on a bipartisan basis. And recessing a guy like [Donald] Berwick [to oversee Medicare and Medicaid] without any hearings at all and with the chairman of the Finance Committee [Max Baucus, D-Mont.] saying he didn't think he should have been recessed. That is not the kind of action that is designed to, shall I say, engender a cooperative reaction on the part of the minority. I think we can statistically show you that it is not worse for President Obama. He hasn't been singled out more for shoddy treatment than it has been in the past.

It’s unclear what “concern” McConnell is referring to in the case of the nine blocked nominees who have received absolutely no Republican opposition. The concern seems to have nothing to do with the nominees at all—but rather with unrelated executive branch nominations that the GOP is seeking revenge for.

And as for McConnell’s claim that “we can statistically show you that it is not worse for President Obama,” the Center for American Progress has a chart for that:


PFAW

Proposition 8: Just the Facts

Yesterday afternoon, federal Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8 violated the United States Constitution. This is an important milestone.

One reason it is so important is the factual record that was compiled for the case. Judge Walker developed an extremely detailed factual record upon which to base his legal conclusions - a record of the significant harm that marriage inequality causes, of the history of discrimination faced by lesbian and gay people, and of the animus behind Prop 8. In fact, more than 50 pages of the opinion are devoted to his findings of fact.

For instance, there's Fact 55: "Permitting same-sex couples to marry will not affect the number of opposite-sex couples who marry, divorce, cohabit, have children outside of marriage or otherwise affect the stability of opposite-sex marriages."

Or Fact 56: "The children of same-sex couples benefit when their parents can marry."

Or Fact 66: "Proposition 8 increases costs and decreases wealth for same-sex couples because of increased tax burdens, decreased availability of health insurance and higher transactions costs to secure rights and obligations typically associated with marriage. Domestic partnership reduces but does not eliminate these costs."

Or Fact 74: "Gays and lesbians have been victims of a long history of discrimination."

Or Fact 76: "Well-known stereotypes about gay men and lesbians include a belief that gays and lesbians are affluent, self-absorbed and incapable of forming long-term intimate relationships. Other stereotypes imagine gay men and lesbians as disease vectors or as child molesters who recruit young children into homosexuality. No evidence supports these stereotypes."

This factual record is very important, because when Prop 8 supporters appeal the decision, the appellate court will have to accept these facts. Appellate federal courts are generally limited to deciding issues of law, not of fact. Well-supported facts like these will make it much harder for an appellate court to reverse the decision.

More broadly, this case shows us that when the forces of the Right face an independent judge, the arguments that serve them so well on Fox News wither before genuine scrutiny. It also shows the beauty of the American constitutional system, where our independent judiciary protects Equal Justice Under the Law.

PFAW

Cornyn Twists Kagan Remark, Comes Out Against “Judgment”

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':

PFAW

Franken: Roberts Court is Activist

Senator Al Franken was right on about the Roberts Court this afternoon. For years, he said, conservatives have complained that progressives engage in “judicial activism” from the highest court. Most conservatives on the judiciary committee seemed to agree with Elena Kagan’s definition of a judicial activist as a Justice who doesn’t defer to the elected legislative branch, doesn’t respect precedent, and doesn’t decide as narrowly as possible.

Kagan has demonstrated that she would not be an activist or ideological judge. But, as Senator Franken put it, there is no doubt that the Roberts court is an activist court. Let’s hope that if she is confirmed, the future Justice Kagan can bring real humility and a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution back to the highest court.

PFAW

Trading Judges

As the Senate prepares to vote this week on the Supreme Court confirmation of Elena Kagan, there is also reportedly a deal in the works to finally confirm dozens of the executive branch and judicial nominees who have been waiting—many of them for months—for votes on the Senate floor.

CQ reports:

After seeing only two nominees confirmed during July, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are discussing terms for advancing at least some of the 84 nominations awaiting floor votes, aides said Monday. “We have a number of nominations that we’re looking at,” said Reid.

But some of the more controversial nominees are unlikely to be confirmed before the Senate returns in mid-September, if then. That may tempt Obama to use recess appointments to fill those vacancies at least temporarily — unless the White House agrees to pass up the opportunity to make recess appointments in exchange for Senate action on some nominees this week.

It’s about time that the Senate gets around to clearing the nominations backlog. But voting on nominees that were reported months ago without any opposition is no great concession by the Republican minority. It’s time to end the charade and the gamesmanship.

Take for example North Carolina judge Albert Wynn, whose nomination to fill a long-vacant seat on the Fourt Circuit Court of Appeals was approved by the Judiciary Committee in an 18-1 vote six months ago, and has been held up by GOP leadership ever since. David Savage at the Los Angeles Times describes the holdup of Wynn’s nomination as part of a political battle similar to “an old family feud”:

The GOP leader had no objection to Wynn. Instead, he said, he was getting back at Democrats who had blocked President George W. Bush's nominees to the same court. "My perspective on the 4th Circuit covers a little longer period of time," McConnell said.

The Senate's dispute over judicial nominees resembles a family feud that stretches over several generations. Judges are being opposed not because of their records, but because of what happened several years earlier to other nominees. Use of the filibuster rule, which the GOP had insisted was unconstitutional several years ago, has become a routine stalling tactic.

If confirmed, Wynn would fill a North Carolina seat on the 4th Circuit that has been vacant since 1994.

Let’s have a vote on James Wynn. Or let’s have a vote on Jane Stranch of Tennessee, nominated to fill a seat on the Sixth Circuit, who has the support of both of her home state Republican Senators. And let’s have a vote on Goodwin Liu, nominated for a seat on the Ninth Circuit, who has endorsements from across the ideological spectrum, including Clint Bolick and Ken Starr.


The debate over judicial nominations has become not about qualifications or the law, or about the urgent needs of the justice system, but about political game-playing. It’s great that the GOP has finally agreed to confirm some nominees who they never objected to in the first place. Maybe now they can move on to having a substantive debate on those, like Wynn, Stranch, and Liu, against whom they continue to use every passive-aggressive rule of Senate procedure.
 

PFAW

Republicans Waiting It Out On Judicial Nominations

In the wake of Citizens United and other rulings that put corporate bank accounts ahead of individual rights, it has become increasingly clear where the priorities of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority lie. Republicans in Congress, unlike most Americans, like what they’re seeing—and are doing everything in their power to make sure the Roberts Court’s philosophy is reflected in lower courts throughout the country.

Apparently not satisfied with the current conservative bent of the nation’s entire judicial system (nearly 40% of federal judges nationwide were appointed by George W. Bush), Republican Senators are trying to stall district and circuit court judicial nominations until they are in a position to appoint federal judges once again, packing the court even more firmly for corporate interests.

A recent study by the Center for American Progress found that the current Republican obstruction of judicial nominations is truly unprecedented. The graph below pretty much says it all:

The current Republican obstructionism is unprecedented. Even George H.W. Bush, whose party never controlled the Senate during his term, enjoyed a confirmation rate nearly double that of President Obama and the current solidly Democratic Senate.

Yesterday, several senators put a much-needed spotlight on the GOP’s obstruction of judicial nominations. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island spoke about the special interests that are preventing public interest lawyer John McConnell, an extremely qualified nominee who enjoys bipartisan support, from serving his home state:

Why is it that nominees of President Obama are being held to a different, new standard than applied to the nominees of President Bush? Why have we departed from the longstanding tradition of respect to the views of home State Senators who know the nominees best and who best understand their home districts? … I ask this because we have a highly qualified nominee in Rhode Island, Jack McConnell, who was reported by the Judiciary Committee on June 17. It was a bipartisan vote, 13 to 6, with the support of Senator Lindsey Graham. Jack McConnell is a pillar of the legal community in Rhode Island…The Providence Chamber of Commerce has praised Jack McConnell as a well-respected member of the local community. Political figures from across our political spectrum have called for his confirmation, one of them being my predecessor as Rhode Island attorney general, Republican Jeffrey Pine.

…Notwithstanding the support of Senator Reed and myself, the two Senators from Rhode Island, notwithstanding that this is a district court nomination, notwithstanding the powerful support across Rhode Island from those who know Jack McConnell best, special interests from outside the State have interfered in his nomination. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, not the Rhode Island chapter, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has attacked Jack for having the temerity to stand up to big business, to the asbestos to representing the rights of the powerless. In doing so, the U.S. Chamber has created a cartoon image of Jack McConnell that bears no relation to the man Senator Reed and I know as a great lawyer, as a great Rhode Islander, and somebody who will be a great judge.

I ask my colleagues…do we want to let powerful out-of-State interests trump the better informed views of home State Senators about district court nominees?

This is not just a political question-- the GOP is so concerned about keeping the courts corporate-friendly in the long-term that they’re ignoring the very urgent short-term needs of the federal court system. While judicial positions around the country remain vacant, many Americans are forced to wait for inexcusably long periods to have their day in court as current judges struggle with an impossible workload. The Judicial Conference has declared 42 of the 99 current judicial vacancies “judicial emergencies.” Carolyn Lamm, President of the non-partisan American Bar Association, calls the current dearth of federal judges “urgent.” But the GOP clearly cares more about protecting their allies in the corporate world than allowing the lower court system to function.

PFAW

GOP Blocks 20 Judicial Nominees, Rebuffs Goodwin Liu Again

Nine Democratic senators went to the Senate floor today to call for up-or-down votes on the confirmation of 20 federal judicial nominees, many of whom have been waiting months to be confirmed and several of whom passed out of the Judiciary Committee with little or no opposition from members of either party. The Senators who spoke on the floor today included Mark Udall (CO), Michael Bennet (CO), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Herb Kohl (WI), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Jack Reed (RI), Ben Cardin (MD), Tom Carper (DE), and Ted Kaufman (DE).

The explanation from Senator Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of the architects of the obstruction? "Things do not always go as smoothly as you would like."

Among the nominees Democratic senators sought votes on were several whose nomination sagas we've been following. There were Albert Diaz and James Wynn of North Carolina who would be be, respectively, the first Latino and fourth African American appointed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (and who garnered one no vote between the two of them in committee). There was John McConnell of Rhode Island, who has come under attack from the powerful lobbyists at the Chamber of Commerce because of his record of defending consumers in suits against large manufacturers. There was William Joseph Martinez, the Colorado judge who has come under attack for having sat on an advisory panel for the ACLU.

And then there was Goodwin Liu. Sen. Ben Cardin told a Netroots Nation panel last week that Liu's hearing with the Judiciary Committee was "one of the most impressive confirmation hearings we've ever had." Richard Painter, who served as a lawyer in the Bush White House, called him "a fine choice for the federal bench." Yet, inexplicably, Liu, a law professor at Berkeley who is respected by legal scholars across the political spectrum, has become a flash point for Republican obstruction.

It's time for the Senate GOP to stop stalling votes on these critical nominations and come clean about their true priorities for the courts.

Many thanks to the Senators who took to the floor today to shine a spotlight on this unprecedented and senseless obstruction.

 

PFAW

Obama Increasing Pressure On GOP to Confirm Judges

President Obama says he’s increasing the pressure on Republican Senators to stop stalling judicial nominees. After meeting with congressional leaders today, he told reporters:

Finally, during our meeting today, I urged Senator McConnell and others in the Senate to work with us to fill the vacancies that continue to plague our judiciary. Right now, we’ve got nominees who’ve been waiting up to eight months to be confirmed as judges. Most of these folks were voted out of committee unanimously, or nearly unanimously, by both Democrats and Republicans. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that they were qualified to serve. Nevertheless, some in the minority have used parliamentary procedures time and again to deny them a vote in the full Senate.

If we want our judicial system to work -- if we want to deliver justice in our courts -- then we need judges on our benches. And I hope that in the coming months, we’ll be able to work together to ensure a timelier process in the Senate.

Since Obama took office, he has met with astounding Republican obstruction of his judicial nominees…which, if it continues, could have serious consequences on justice throughout the country.
 

PFAW

Udall and Bennett Push for Vote on Judge

Another set of senators have come forward to try to break the GOP’s logjam on judicial nominees.

Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennett sent a letter Friday to the leaders of the Senate and the Senate Judiciary Committee to request a Senate vote on Colorado district court nominee William Joseph Martinez. Martinez was nominated to the seat in February and approved by the Judiciary Committee in April.

The GOP has refused to vote on Martinez’s nomination, along with the 20 other pending judicial nominations.

"We can all agree that the Senate must act quickly on this and other pending judicial nominations in order to avoid further strain on our federal court system," the senators wrote. "The federal court system is already burdened by an overwhelming caseload, and the existence of these vacancies only adds to a mounting backlog."

I wrote last week about the profound consequences of GOP obstruction of run-of-the-mill judicial appointees: When the GOP stalls the nomination of one well-qualified nominee with bipartisan support, it’s an annoying political game. When that political game is multiplied by the dozens, it becomes a concerted attempt to keep the judiciary in the hands of the Right Wing.

The more senators who speak out on behalf of individual nominees, the greater the chances of breaking the dangerously low-profile obstruction.
 

PFAW

Making the Courts a Progressive Priority

If there’s one theme that’s prevalent here at Netroots Nation, it’s that elections matter—but what you do after elections matters more.

In a great panel discussion this morning, six judiciary-watchers discussed why the courts should matter to progressives, and why it’s dangerous when they don’t.

Pam Karlan, a professor at Stanford Law school who is frequently mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee herself, put it this way: “However much progressive legislation we get from Congress, unless it gets enforced every day by district courts, it’s just words on paper.”

Republicans have successfully made the courts an issue for their base, and are trying to work it to their advantage now that they’ve lost power in Congress and the White House. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month that nearly 40% of federal judges currently serving were appointed by George W. Bush, whose habit of recruiting from the conservative Federalist Society led to an intentional right-ward drift on courts across the country.

In their effort to keep the courts on the Right, Republicans are taking full advantage of their well-practiced obstruction skills.

Nan Aron, president of Alliance For Justice described the Republican game plan to keep the courts: “Hold seats open until a Republican president comes in and he’ll fill them in a New York minute.”

Which is exactly what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to do as he repeatedly refuses to hold votes on confirming President Obama’s judicial nominees. He’s making a deliberate effort to stall all Senate business, but also a calculated plan to keep seats on the federal bench empty for as long as possible with the hope that they won’t be filled by progressives.

What courts do every day—from the Supreme Court down—matters to ordinary people. Indeed, courts are central to our ability to hold corporations and other special interests accountable for harmful behavior. Judicial appointments are essential to securing corporate accountability for environmental safety (just look at the Fifth Circuit, where the judges making important decisions about oil drilling regulation are closely connected to the oil industry); they’re essential to holding businesses accountable for how they treat workers (see Rent-a-Center v. Jackson); and, of course, they’re a critical part of ensuring our civil rights.

Dahlia Lithwick, who covers the Supreme Court for Slate, pointed out that “conservatives have been laser-focused on the court,” while progressives don’t always connect the issues we care about with the courts that ultimately decide their fate.

It's time to change that.

UPDATE: You can watch the full discussion in the video above.

PFAW

Chairman Leahy Reprimands Senate Republicans

After helping Elena Kagan sail through the Judiciary Committee, Chairman Leahy isn’t content resting on his laurels. Yesterday the Chairman censured his Republican colleagues for their obstructionism on lower profile but just as vital judicial nominations. When Republicans foiled his attempt to schedule discussion on 4th Circuit nominee Jane Stranch of Tenessee, who enjoys the bipartisan support of her home state Senators, Chairman Leahy called them out:

Senate Republicans have further ratcheted up the obstruction and partisanship that have regrettably become commonplace this Congress with regard to judicial nominees. We asked merely for a time agreement to debate and vote on the nomination. I did not foreclose any Republican Senator from voting against the nominee or speaking against the nominee but simply wanted a standard agreement in order to allow the majority leader to schedule the debate and get to a vote. This is for a nomination reported favorably by the Judiciary Committee over eight months ago with bipartisan support. Yet the Republican leader objected and blocked our consideration.

For anyone who still thinks that both parties engage in this kind of obstructionism when in the minority, Senator Leahy came prepared with statistics:

No one should be confused: the current obstruction and stalling by Senate Republicans is unprecedented. There is no systematic counterpart by Senate Democrats. In fact, during the first 2 years of the Bush administration, the 100 judges confirmed were considered by the Democratically controlled Senate an average of 25 days from being reported by the Judiciary Committee. The average time for confirmed Federal circuit court nominees was 26 days. The average time for the 36 Federal circuit and district and circuit court judges confirmed since President Obama took office is 82 days and the average time for Federal circuit nominees is 126 days. So when Republicans say that we are moving faster than we did during the first 2 years of the Bush administration they are wrong. It was not until the summer of 2001 that the Senate majority shifted to Democrats, but as soon as it did, we proceeded on the judicial nominations of President Bush, a Republican President. Indeed, by this date during the second year of the Bush administration, the Senate had confirmed 58 of his judicial nominations and we were on the way to confirming 100 by the end of the year. By contrast, Republican obstruction of President Obama's judicial nominees has meant that only 36 of his judicial nominees have been confirmed. We have fallen dramatically behind the pace set for consideration of President Bush's nominees.

…Indeed, when President Bush was in the White House, Senate Republicans took the position that it was unconstitutional and wholly inappropriate not to vote on nominees approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. With a Democratic President, they have reverted to the secret holds that resulted in pocket filibusters of more than 60 nominees during the Clinton years. Last year, Senate Republicans successfully stalled all but a dozen Federal circuit and district court nominees. That was the lowest total number of judges confirmed in more than 50 years. They have continued that practice despite the fact that judicial vacancies continue to hover around 100, with more than 40 declared judicial emergencies.

As Chairman Leahy emphasized, these obstructionist tactics have rarely come with explanations. For example, Judge James Wynn, who was nominated first by President Clinton and then by President Obama and would become the first black Justice on the 4th Circuit, has been on anonymous hold for six months with no reason given.

Our judicial system can’t function properly without qualified judges on the bench. But Senate Republicans are leaving dozens of judicial vacancies open for purely political reasons. Good for Chairman Leahy for speaking out on this.

PFAW

Saying No To Good Government

Although Elena Kagan’s nomination moved out of committee yesterday, almost every Republican committee member voted against her, and most Senate Republicans are expected to follow suite. Why? As an editorial in the New York Times pointed out , Republican opposition to the broad interpretation of the commerce clause in recent decades may partly explain their refusal to support Kagan:

[D]ozens of Senate Republicans are ready to vote against [Kagan], and many are citing her interpretation of the commerce clause of the Constitution, the one that says Congress has the power to regulate commerce among the states. At her confirmation hearings, Ms. Kagan refused to take the Republican bait and agree to suggest limits on that clause’s meaning. This infuriated the conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee because it has been that clause, more than any other, that has been at the heart of the expansion of government power since the New Deal.

The clause was the legal basis for any number of statutes of enormous benefit to society. It is why we have the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act. The Endangered Species Act. The Fair Labor Standards Act, setting a minimum wage and limiting child labor. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation in the workplace and in public accommodations. In cases like these, the Supreme Court has said Congress can regulate activities that have a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce, even if they are not directly business-related.

…Make no mistake that such a vote is simply about her, or about President Obama. A vote against the commerce clause is a vote against some of the best things that government has done for the better part of a century, and some of the best things that lie ahead.

In voting against Kagan’s anticipated interpretation of the commerce clause, the “Party of No” isn’t just opposing the confirmation of extremely qualified Supreme Court Justice; they’re also opposing the government fulfilling its responsibility to protect clean air and water, fair labor standards, and civil rights for all.

PFAW

Kagan Clears Judiciary Committee

Yesterday the Judiciary Committee voted to forward Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate. Here’s PFAW President Michael B. Keegan’s statement:

Today’s vote is a step towards achieving a Supreme Court that understands the way the law affects individual Americans. In her hearings, Solicitor General Kagan made clear that, unlike the current Court, she understands that corporate interests shouldn’t be allowed to run rampant over the rights of individual Americans.

It’s frankly puzzling that the GOP seems dead set on opposing that principle. Throughout much of the hearings, Republican senators lavished praise on Citizens United v. FEC, a decision that gave corporations unchecked rights to buy elections and which most Americans abhor. Given the national outrage at companies like BP and Goldman Sachs, it’s surprising that the GOP would expend so much breath pining for a Supreme Court Justice who would give even greater deference to corporations while slamming the door on individual Americans fighting for their rights.

Apparently, the ‘Party of No’ can’t stop from saying ‘Yes’ to corporate interests who want to get their way in the Supreme Court.

Fortunately for the country, the GOP has been unable to block the confirmation of this supremely qualified nominee. But as we’ve noted, their largely under-the-radar obstructionism on lower priority nominations is still going strong.

PFAW

The Ethical Imperative of Immigration Reform

One of the more interesting developments in the latest push for comprehensive immigration reform has been the split developing between conservative anti-immigrant groups who are committed to mass deportation at all costs and some right-wing evangelical leaders who have come out in favor of a compassionate and realistic approach to immigration reform.

In May, a coalition of conservative evangelical leaders announced their intention to gather support for “a just assimilation immigration policy.” Soon afterwards, of course, they made it clear that their definition of “just” does not include justice for LGBT couples.

On Wednesday, a number of those leaders spoke to the House Judiciary Committee on their support for ethical immigration reform—and its limits.

In the hearing on the Ethical Imperative for Reform of our Immigration System , immigration reform was discussed in the context of ethics and morals, and the committee heard testimonies from three religious leaders and one scholar about the problems and possible solutions for immigration reform in America.

Nobody at the hearing denied that the current immigration system is broken and untenable. Rev. Gerald Kicanas, Bishop of the Archdiocese of Tucson, contextualized immigration as a humanitarian issue with moral implications, underlining that our immigration system fails to protect basic human rights and dignity. He voiced his support for comprehensive immigration reform that would encompass features such as paying a fine, paying taxes, learning English, and waiting behind those who already applied legally to eventually gain citizenship, and argued that CIR would fulfill our moral obligation to protect immigrants under rule of law.

Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, echoed those sentiments, stating that when looking at the issue of immigration through a faith-based lens, individuals had a biblical mandate to care for others and act mercifully.

Both speakers advocated an earned path to citizenship, recognizing that deporting over 11 million immigrants was not only unfeasible, but immoral and inconsistent with the rule of law.

It’s troubling that the compassion Kicanas and Land are advocating stops at the equal treatment of gay people. Both are right that too often, pivotal issues like immigration reform become mired in politics and party-line ideology, and it’s important for leaders from different faith backgrounds to step up and have a conversation on the detrimental effects of our broken system of immigration on millions of families. But that discussion should include all families.
 

PFAW