In an op-ed printed in the Portland Press Herald this weekend, retired congressman Barney Frank offers a sharp critique of the far right Supreme Court under John Roberts. Explicitly noting the importance of the Court in defining law that affects all citizens, Frank makes clear not only that courts matter, but everyday citizens have a hand in how these courts are shaped.
Reviewing the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions — from overturning “more than 100 years of federal and state efforts to regulate the role of money in campaigns” to declaring that corporations have the right to religious freedom under RFRA—Frank states that “the court has ended this term with a barrage against laws it does not like” (emphasis added).
…The Supreme Court is now strongly inclined to impose conservative ideology via Constitutional interpretation on a broad range of public policy. It is true that Kennedy and to some extent Roberts occasionally deviate from this, but Justice Samuel Alito has surpassed even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in his ideological purity.
The relevance of this to the next two elections is very clear. Four of the sitting justices are in their late 70s or older. This means that there is a strong possibility that President Obama will have a chance to appoint another justice before his term expires, but his ability to do so will be determined not simply by the health of the justices in question, but by the composition of the U.S. Senate. The increasing partisanship in the Senate, the continued virulent influence of the tea party and recent history strongly suggest that even if a vacancy occurs, Obama will be prevented from filling it (emphasis added).
Frank refers to the unceasing Republican obstructionism and argues courts are critical for defining laws that affect Americans on a daily basis, highlighting the importance of this year’s midterm elections. As he concludes in this piece,
This makes it highly likely that among the issues that will be determined in the next senatorial and presidential election will be the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Voters should act accordingly.
Tuesday afternoon, PFAW hosted a special member telebriefing on the continued GOP obstruction of judicial nominees. The briefing featured PFAW’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon. They discussed how Republicans’ obstruction has reached staggering levels, despite changes in Senate filibuster rules.
Marge gave a brief background on the issue of GOP obstruction of judicial nominations, explaining how important federal judgeships are for deciding many issues that affect everyday Americans and defining why Republicans are determined to continue obstruction confirmations of judicial nominees. Their underlying goal is to keep as many seats empty as possible so a President Cruz or Rubio can fill them with right-wing ideologues.
She addressed the current narrative that President Obama has had more confirmations at this time than Bush had, and explained that these numbers need to be put in the context of the fact that Obama has had around 70 more vacancies to fill than his predecessor. That means for Obama’s confirmation results to be seen as equivalent to those of President Bush, he would have had to have many more nominees confirmed at this point in his presidency.
Paul began a discussion of some of the choke methods Republicans are employing to block the confirmation of President Obama's nominees to the bench. Paul delineated how all too often, GOP senators do not cooperate with the White House to suggest candidates for nomination, delaying the process from the very beginning. Once nominees are made and are sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, we have seen GOP Senators delay the hearing by not submitting their blue slips, an unofficial tradition that gives home state Senators an opportunity to express their support for the nominee.
Marge explained ways in which Republicans are delaying the process once nominees are in committee, where the minority is allowed to request one-week delays. To express the magnitude of the obstruction, Marge explained how of the 270 nominees who have had a vote during President Obama's term, only 11 have had their votes held on time.
Once on the Senate floor, the situation doesn't get better as senators are able to filibuster nominees by refusing to give unanimous consent to the simple act of holding a yes-or-no confirmation vote. To offset these delays, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been forced to file for cloture. Since the rules change in November, there have been cloture votes on all the nominees, adding hours of senate time in post-cloture debates (30 hours per circuit court nominee).
Marge highlighted that if all 30 nominees on the floor were voted on today, which is possible, then the number of current vacancies would drop precipitously, down to the level at this point in George W. Bush’s presidency. It is essential that these be voted on now, and that confirmation votes for nominations coming out of committee be voted on expeditiously.
Fielding questions from PFAW members, Marge and Paul discussed particular cases of obstruction like that of William Thomas's nomination in Florida, where Senator Marco Rubio withheld his blue slip in support of the nominee-–one that he himself had recommended in the first place. Members also made the connection between the effect of big money in politics and the motivations for GOP senators to obstruct confirmations, and attempted to find ways in which everyday Americans can make their voices heard to their senators regarding the issues of obstruction in judicial nominations. Paul used the example of the DC Circuit Court fight, where with the activism from people across the country rallying together helped get all the court's vacancies filled.
Marge and Paul, along with PFAW members, emphasized how as activists, we can intervene in the fight to take back our democracy by letting Senators know that average Americans are paying attention, watching how they respond and vote on judicial nominations, and considering who may be pulling their strings. For instance, a caller in Florida wanting to influence Marco Rubio could call his office and ask him to prevent a delay in a committee vote for nominees to fill four emergency vacancies. And everyone, regardless of whether there are vacancies in their state, can call their senators and call for the quick confirmation of the large number of nominees awaiting a floor vote. She also highlighted what is at stake in this mid-term election since the officials we elect today will help confirm the judges that will decide important cases that affect average Americans. For this reason, it is important to have demographic and experiential diversity in the courts so judges making decisions understand the impact of the law on regular Americans.
Today, the Senate voted to advance the nomination of Michelle Friedland to the 9th Circuit.
Friedland was one of many superb, highly qualified judges caught up in Republicans' blanket obstruction of judicial nominees, and President Obama was forced to re-nominate her for the court this year. After today’s vote, she still faces 30 hours of potential "post-cloture debate," unless Republicans allow the Senate to move forward on the nomination more expeditiously.
Even though the Senate changed its filibuster rule for judicial and executive branch nominations, lowering the threshold from 60 votes to a simple majority in order to invoke cloture and advance nominees toward confirmation votes, Republicans continue to force cloture votes as a procedural hurdle. The delay created by these votes and the subsequent 30-hour wait before a confirmation can occur amounts to a stubborn form of obstruction in itself.
And this is just one way that Senate Republicans are continuing to hold up the judicial nomination process. Judicial nominees from states with Republican senators also face unreasonable, meritless obstruction due the GOP's abuse of the Senate's "blue slip" policy, by which a senator can unilaterally put a permanent hold on a nominee from his or her state before they even get a hearing.
There are currently 31 judicial nominees on the Senate's calendar, many for long-unfilled vacancies and nearly half for ones that have been declared "judicial emergencies." As vacancies languish, courts can't do their job and in turn, Americans are denied access to justice. If Republican senators ended their obstruction and allowed the 31 pending nominees to go through, that alone would fill a third of the nation's current vacancies.
But based on how Republicans on Capitol Hill are behaving, we shouldn't hold our breath.
Today alone, in addition to wasting the Senate's time and taxpayers' money by forcing the Leadership to hold a cloture vote on Michelle Friedland, instead of just bringing her confirmation straight to an up-or-down vote:
We’re going to keep fighting to get as many more nominees confirmed as we can this year, before time runs out. But the message we send to Republicans in November is tremendously important as well.
Winning or losing at the ballot box could be the difference between a continued vacancy crisis on federal courts dominated by pro-corporate, conservative ideologue judges or the restoration of balance and justice to our courts with the confirmation of highly qualified judges who understand the promises of the Constitution and how the law impacts the lives of real people.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) responded to Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) absurd claim that this Congress has done well in confirming judicial nominees. In fact, Republicans have not consented to even one judicial confirmation vote since November. The few votes that have been held since then have been over GOP filibusters. Unfortunately, Senate rules allow them to demand hours of needless “post cloture debate” after every cloture vote, so it could take weeks and weeks of Senate floor time to get through all the nominees waiting for a simple yes-or-no vote.
Reid was quick to voice that the confirmation process has been unnecessarily delayed by GOP obstruction:
Everyone knows that we are in this situation because of Republicans slow-walking every nomination—every nomination. There is no reason, no reason whatsoever that we are having votes on cloture on these judges.
“It is a waste of the taxpayers’ time to go through the process we’ve been going through.
Reid, aware of the prolonged time they will spend clearing the backlog due to these procedural delays, promised that they will get through filing cloture on all of the nominees.
If that’s what the Republicans want us to do, then that’s what we’ll do. The American people will see this colossal waste of time that we’ve been going through.
In their press conference following yesterday’s vote to change the Senate rules on filibusters, Democratic senators used a chart provided by PFAW to outline the extremity and unprecedented nature of the GOP’s obstruction of President Obama’s nominees.
Photos by J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press via The Washington Post
Yesterday, PFAW’s Marge Baker joined a distinguished panel of legal scholars, federal judges and officials representing members of congress and the White House at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, OH to discuss possible solutions to the unprecedented vacancy crisis in the federal courts. Republican obstruction in the Senate has severely impaired the important work of the federal judiciary, with serious consequences for the American people. Fortunately, the White House has signaled a renewed focus on ending the stalemate and restoring the court system’s ability to swiftly serve those who seek justice in a court of law.
• Marge Baker, Executive Vice President for Policy & Program, PFAW
• Hon. James S. Gwin, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio
• Christopher Kang, Senior Counsel to the President, Office of White House Counsel
• Jeremy Paris, Chief Counsel for Nominations and oversight, Chairman Patrick Leahy, Senate Judiciary Committee
• Michael Zubrensky, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Policy, U.S. Department of Justice
• Jonathan Adler, Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director, Center for Business Law & Regulation, Case Western Reserve University School of Law
The panel was sponsored by The Cleveland –Marshall College of Law, National Coalition of Jewish Women, Ohio Coalition of Constitutional Values, Alliance for Justice, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and People For the American Way.
Since President Obama took office, Republican obstruction of his judicial nominees has been multifaceted, unstinting, highly partisan, hypocritical, and unprecedented in scope. When the Senate left town at the start of the month, Republican leaders prevented the Democrats from scheduling a vote on 20 extremely qualified nominees who had cleared the Judiciary Committee.
Yesterday, the White House Blog called attention to the obstruction and to the highly qualified and diverse federal bench that the president is working to build:
[T]he President's nominations for federal judges embody an unprecedented commitment to expanding the racial, gender and experiential diversity of the men and women who enforce our laws and deliver justice.
Unfortunately, the delays these nominees are encountering on Capitol Hill are equally unprecedented: earlier this month, the Senate left for its August recess without considering 20 eminently qualified candidates, 16 of whom had passed through the bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee completely unopposed, a development the Washington Post called "not only frustrating but also destructive" in an editorial published yesterday.
As the Republicans know, their intransigence is exacerbating a destructive vacancy crisis in federal courtrooms, one that is making it harder and harder for Americans to secure their rights:
The victims of these delays, of course, are the American citizens who are being denied the fair and timely judicial proceedings they deserve because of the chronic shortage of federal judges on the bench. Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association, told Senate leaders in a recent letter that the abundance of vacant federal judgeships "create strains that will inevitably reduce the quality of our justice system and erode public confidence in the ability of the courts to vindicate constitutional rights or render fair and timely decisions."
Click here to see the White House's infographic highlighting the obstruction and its consequences for families and businesses. It shows that:
Because, thanks to the ongoing GOP obstruction in the Senate, virtually nothing can get done without a time consuming cloture vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed cloture late yesterday on the motion to begin debate on the DREAM Act. If passed, the legislation would allow undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to gain legal status and a path to citizenship if they attend college or join the armed forces.
The Brookings Institution gives a rundown of what the legislation includes:
The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would offer conditional citizenship to a specific group of young individuals. To gain conditional status under the DREAM Act one must have entered the United States before the age of 16, been in the country continuously for five years, earned a high school diploma (or GED) and not committed any crimes that would otherwise restrict someone from entering the country. During a six-year period of conditional status, this group will have been required to complete two years in uniformed service or two years enrolled at an institution of higher learning, and must pass a second criminal background check before being considered for full citizenship. It should also be noted that the DREAM Act only applies to young people currently in the country so that it will not encourage additional families to bring children to the U.S. looking for benefits.
The bill seems to have plenty of support. Orrin Hatch, Sam Brownback, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe have all supported it in the past. But when it comes to Republican obstruction, good policy takes a backseat to good politics.
By filing the cloture petition, Reid will be able to hold the vote on cutting off debate and then proceeding to consideration of the bill on Wednesday. We’ll keep you posted as the issue moves forward.
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.
This week, Americans get to see the difference between a party that respects the rule of law and one that holds it in contempt.
Earlier this week, Senate Democrats got a food safety bill passed - then discovered a procedural problem with constitutional implications: One section of the Senate bill would raise revenue, but the Constitution requires revenue bills to originate in the House. Now, in the face of Republican obstruction, Democratic leaders are working to figure out how to get the bill passed correctly before time runs out.
While the headlines are on the mistake, the main focus really should be on how Democratic leaders are responding appropriately to it - in stark contrast to how Republican leaders dealt with a similar foul-up in February 2006, when they controlled Congress. GOP leaders sent a bill for the president's signature that they knew had not passed the House.
The Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005 squeaked through the Senate after Vice President Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote. But when the bill was transmitted to the House, in a mistake that no one noticed at the time, one of the numbers in the bill text was changed, changing the rights of Medicare recipients and creating a $2 billion difference between the two bills. The House passed its version with a bare two-vote margin. Then Republican leaders discovered that the two chambers had voted on different bills, meaning that a basic constitutional requirement had not been met.
Having a revote would have been politically difficult. So, faced with a choice between their partisan political agenda and the United States Constitution, GOP leaders chose ... politics. They sent the Senate version to the White House for President Bush's signature, with the Republican Speaker's false certification that it had passed both chambers.
As the Washington Post reported at the time:
Once the mistake was revealed, Republican leaders were loath to fight the battle again by having another vote, so White House officials simply deemed the Senate version to be the law. ...
The issue would be solved if the House voted again, this time on the version that passed the Senate. But that would mark the third time House members would have to cast their votes on a politically difficult bill, containing cuts in many popular programs, and it would be that much closer to the November election.
The way the two parties handled similar situations speaks volumes about their commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law.
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?
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.
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
Constitutional Accountability Center
Equal Justice Society
Families USA Foundation
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
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
League of United Latin American Citizens
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
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
People For the American Way
Secular Coalition for America
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund
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.
Target’s misguided donation to a pro-corporate, anti-gay Minnesota gubernatorial candidate has (with good reason) caused quite an uproar recently. But the dominant narrative – that Target will serve as a cautionary tale warning other big corporations against getting involved in politics – isn’t quite right.
As an NPR story yesterday made clear, the lesson of the Target story for many like-minded corporations is: don’t get caught.
Target gave to a group that is legally bound to identify its contributors. That's why Target's contribution became known.
Many other groups don't have to disclose a thing. So a company can channel its money — and its message — through a business association or an advocacy group, and outsiders will never know.
"Given all these different ways that you can spend your money without generating a national news story, certainly I think a lot of corporate executives are saying this is just a reminder to use all those other tools that we have in our tool kit," says Robert Kelner, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington.
The DISCLOSE Act, which was brought down by Republican obstruction earlier this summer, is likely to return to the Senate in September. Its passage would oblige all corporations to be transparent about their political involvement, making the Target story a true cautionary tale.
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.
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.
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.
We talk a lot about the purely political motives Republican senators have in their efforts to slow down the confirmation process for President Obama’s judicial nominees. It’s easy to forget that who those nominees are—and when they start working— makes a huge difference. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this weekend that nearly 40% of all federal judges currently on the bench were appointed by George W. Bush--who made a concerted effort to appoint judges with right-wing credentials, and, you might say, didn’t put much of a priority on gender or racial diversity.
Obama, in contrast, has returned to a more bipartisan appointment process and has a notably diverse list of appointees. But thanks to Republican obstruction, Obama’s appointees aren’t making it to the bench:
So far, nearly half of Obama's 73 appointments to the federal bench have been women, 25 percent have been African American, 11 percent Asian American, and 10 percent Hispanic. About 30 percent of Obama's nominees were white males. By contrast, two-thirds of George W. Bush's nominees were white males.
Obama's rate of appointing women and people of color is higher than those of any of his predecessors during the first year of their terms. But he is not the only one setting records.
According to a report by the Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group: "The Senate confirmed both fewer nominees and a smaller percentage of nominees under President Obama than under any other previous five presidents during their first year in office."
Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had 91 percent of their nominees confirmed in their first year in office. Since then, however, the figure has sharply declined, with George H.W. Bush getting 65 percent of his early judicial nominees confirmed, followed by Bill Clinton at 57 percent, George W. Bush at 44 percent, and Obama at 36 percent.
As recent events in the Fifth Circuit reminded us, it really does matter who ends up in federal judgeships. And Republicans, booted from control of the legislative and executive branches, are fighting tooth and nail to keep the courts.