Capping off an extremely important day of discussions with senior White House officials and Capitol Hill offices about ending the unprecedented Republican obstruction that is contributing to our severe federal judicial vacancy crisis, several state and national advocates had the opportunity to meet with President Obama about the urgency of addressing this crisis.
PFAW President Michael Keegan and I joined several representatives from among the 150 advocates from 27 states who participated in the Summit, in a meeting in the West Wing of the White House, where we heard the President reaffirm his commitment to press for the confirmation of judicial nominees who are ready for a vote in the full Senate or being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee – and his commitment to continue vetting and making nominations through the balance of this year in an effort to fill the remainder of the vacancies.
We celebrated the Administration’s extraordinary success so far in diversifying the federal bench, while agreeing that there was even more to be done. Advocates talked about the millions of Americans who are denied meaningful access to the courts because there simply are not enough judges on the bench. And we heard the President affirm the importance of pressing obstructionists in the Senate to end the unprecedented dysfunction that is impeding individual Americans’ access to justice.
For me this was a sobering day as we focused on the urgency of filling our federal bench with quality judges who will keep faith with the Constitution -- and inspiring to see the allies we have in states around the country, on Capitol Hill, and in the White House to get the job done.
Today, a few representatives from People For the American Way joined 150 Americans from 27 states at a White House summit to discuss the state of vacancies in the federal courts.
We’ll write more about the summit in later posts, but first, a summary of the problem. PFAW’s graphic designer, Nicole, put together this infographic showing how unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominees has created an unprecedented vacancy crisis in the federal courts, and slowed down President Obama’s effort to bring qualified, diverse judges to the federal bench:
The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen explains why confirming nominees to our federal courts and helping to boost the economy aren’t two separate issues:
It's not complicated. When a federal judgeship goes vacant because of Senate intransigence, where judicial nominees with bipartisan approval are held up for no good reason, it's not typically the criminal cases which get unreasonably delayed. Criminal defendants have a speedy trial right under the Sixth Amendment. There is no such right for civil litigants. This means those litigants have to wait, often for years, for a trial judge to make available a time for the disposition of a dispute. The problem only gets worse, like it is now, when district courts are understaffed and judges are forced to handle more than their expected case load.
And who are civil litigants in our nation's federal courts? They are corporations and small business owners, investors and merchants, employees and employers, people just like you and me. Well, maybe not you and me since I didn't file a lawsuit this past year and you probably didn't either. But a lot of other people sure did. In 2010, according to federal court records, no fewer than 282,896 federal lawsuits were filed in America. In 2011, 289,252 lawsuits were filed, a 2.2 percent increase from the year before. The latest statistics reveal that there are currently 270,839 pending civil cases in our federal courts.
There's more alarming news. As Mike Scarcella reported last week in the National Law Journal, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts announced last week that there was "an 11 percent increase in intellectual property cases and a 15 percent increase in consumer credit filings" last year. The total number of pending cases in the federal system, including criminal cases, now is 367,600 and, guess what? Even as the number of federal laws (and federal crimes) increases, Congress plans to cut the budget for the federal judiciary come next January. Fewer judges. A smaller budget. Signposts on the road to third-world justice.
So what happens to many of these cases when our benches remain empty? They languish in limbo and the litigants have to live with the financial uncertainty that pending litigation brings. If you are sued for a million dollars, for example, you might choose not to invest that million dollars in a new store, or in hiring new employees, until the lawsuit is over. And if you are suing for money, you aren't likely to spend it until you get it. What federal trial judges do for these litigants, therefore, isn't just to pick a winner and a loser in a particular. The court system provides the oil that helps run the machinery of commerce.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights organized a call yesterday with Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and attorneys from Ohio, South Carolina and Arizona to discuss how judicial nominations gridlock in Washington hurts Americans seeking justice around the country.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reached a deal with Republicans to allow votes on 14 of 22 stalled judicial nominees. The first two of those were confirmed yesterday with overwhelming bipartisan votes.
The deal, while it represents more progress than Senate Republicans were previously willing to allow, still leaves eight nominees without even a vote from the Senate until May at least. Three of these nominees are from Ohio, Arizona and South Carolina.
This procedural gridlock is often portrayed as an inside-the-beltway issue. However, it has a real impact on American seeking justice from our federal courts.
Greg Kuykendall, a Tucson attorney who joined the call, told of a client who had to wait 14 months in jail before a District Court judge with an unmanageable caseload was finally able to review his claim that he was being detained in violation of his constitutional rights. “It effectively made the prisoner spend an additional 14 months in unconstitutional confinement, as a result of the judicial emergency,” Kuykendall said.
Cleveland attorney Michael Meuti told of a Ohio business that had to wait 14 months for a federal judge to review charges that had been brought against it. In the meantime, the business had to endure the uncertainty and cost of having a lawsuit hanging over it.
“Understaffed courts struggle to provide efficient and effective justice,” Meuti said. “When judicial vacancies increase, so do the workloads of each sitting judge. In turn, both individuals and businesses must wait longer for their cases to be resolved and must endure the uncertainties and costs of litigation for a greater period of time. President Obama’s nominees have waited four times longer than his predecessor’s. It is time for the Senate to abandon its obstructionist agenda, which can serve only to make justice harder to obtain for everyday Americans and American companies.”
Armand Derfner, a Charleston, South Carolina attorney, added, “"These nominees are being obstructed for no good reason. They’re suitable, qualified, and many have bipartisan support. The Senate should stop delaying votes to fill these vacancies.”
Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in one of the most closely-watched cases in its history: the challenge to the 2010 Affordable Care Act. But in the weeks leading up to those arguments, another fight will be taking place in the U.S. Senate on an issue that in many ways parallels the health care debate, and offers an even clearer view of what have become the policy priorities of the Republican Party.
Since Obama became president, Republicans in Congress have made a clear and conscious choice to kill any attempts to cooperate with him to create solutions for the American people. They have chosen instead to devote themselves to be the party of opposing President Obama - on every issue, big and small. In doing so, they have thrown out not only the trust of the people who elected them, but many of their own formerly held principles.
Even ideas that originally came from Republicans, once adopted by the president become grounds for all-out partisan attacks. One such Republican idea was the individual mandate, which is now at the center of the legal and political challenges to the Affordable Care Act.
Ironically, the judicial branch - to which Republicans are turning with hopes that the policy they came up with is declared unconstitutional - is also at the heart of another stunning turnaround. Republicans used to talk about the importance of bipartisan cooperation in ensuring a fair and functioning judiciary. But that changed abruptly in January 2009, when the political party of the president changed.
When it comes to health care reform, Republicans have chosen to ignore their previous positions in an effort to stick it to the president.
When it comes to the functioning of the federal courts, they have so far chosen to do the same.
This week, Republicans in the Senate, after three years of obstructing nominees to the U.S. courts -- contributing to a historic vacancy crisis that affects over 160 million Americans -- will have to make the same choice. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced he will file petitions to end the filibusters of 17 nominees to district courts around the country, most long-stalled and unopposed. These, plus the two Obama nominees who have already been filibustered, represent nearly ten times the number of district court nominees who were filibustered under the last two presidents combined. The cumbersome process to end these filibusters will, if Republicans don't relent, tie up the Senate through early April.
During George W. Bush's presidency, Senate Republicans were near-universal in their condemnation of the filibusters of some of Bush's most extreme judicial nominees. Many went so far as to claim that filibustering judicial nominees was unconstitutional.
Once President Obama moved into the White House, it was remarkable how fast they changed their tune. They went overnight from decrying judicial filibusters, to using them wantonly -- not just to stall nominees to whom they found objections, but to stall all nominees , even those whom they favor. At this point in Bush's presidency, the average district court nominee waited 22 days between approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee and a vote from the full Senate. Under President Obama, the average wait has been more than four times longer - over three months.
This is gridlock for gridlock's sake: once Republicans allow them to come to a vote, the vast majority of the president's nominees have been confirmed with overwhelming bipartisan support, demonstrating that the opposition to these nominees was never about their qualifications.
This is more than an inside the beltway partisan game -- it has helped to create a historic vacancy crisis in the federal courts. Approximately one in ten federal courtrooms today sits empty because of Senate inaction. These vacancies create unmanageable workloads for sitting judges, which in turn cause unacceptable delays for Americans seeking their day in court. The Republican Party has been so intent on obstructing President Obama's agenda that they've been willing to sacrifice the smooth functioning of America's courts
. The health care debate highlights the importance of appointing judges who place their duty to the Constitution over a partisan agenda. But it also crystallizes the agenda of opposition that has caused the Republican Party to go off the deep end. When a party's only principle is to be opposed to the other party's agenda, it's the American people who end up paying the price.