Judicial Nominations

  • July 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Even after reaching a deal to move along some executive branch nominations, a gaggle of Republican senators is showing how far it is from giving up on obstructing President Obama’s nominations for long-standing vacancies on the federal bench.

    Yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to consider the nomination of Cornelia “Nina” Pillard to one of the three vacant seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has drawn quick attention from reporters, scholars and activists for some of the accusations lobbed at Pillard, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center with a varied and deep legal career. (And Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) kept insisting the D.C. Circuit, which hears some of the most complex and time-consuming legal matters of all the appeals court circuits doesn’t need any more judges. But Patricia M. Wald, who served for 20 years on the D.C. Circuit, five of them as its chief judge, provides reality here.)

    But Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tried mightily to paint Pillard as unfit to serve on the federal bench. Pillard (pictured) has a widely respected legal career, including varied scholarship, and extensive work as an attorney for the federal government, including the Solicitor General and the Office of Legal Counsel; for mainstream boards seeking to provide services to multinational corporations, such as the American Arbitration Association, and for the long-respected civil rights group, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. But in their questions Lee and Cruz seemed to misstate or misrepresent what Pillard had said in writings and briefs she had authored years before. 

    Pillard has not only taught law, she’s practiced law representing the federal government and individuals seeking to enforce Congress's civil rights laws. But Lee and Cruz during the Senate committee hearing labored to create a far different picture. Specifically they focused on a short symposium article she wrote more than a decade ago that sought common ground on the divisive issue of reproductive choice, and an amicus brief she wrote in support of lower court decisions that had held Operation Rescue accountable for physically blocking women's access to family planning facilities. 

    But Lee and Cruz seemed either to misunderstand or misrepresent Pillard's own words. For example, Cruz claimed that Pillard had once written that abstinence-only education was constitutionally suspect. She did not and tried to explain it to the senator. Pillard pointed out that her article merely argued that such programs should not be bound by stereotypes. Instead she explained that abstinence-only education should be taught without promulgating stereotypes. Moreover that article was intended for policymakers offering ways to bridge a gap between anti-abortion activists and women’s rights advocates by identifying initiatives both sides could agree upon that would reduce the incidence of abortion.

    Cruz and Lee continued their misrepresentation of Pillard's legal work, claiming that in an amicus or friend-of-the-court brief that she equated anti-abortion activists to violent white supremacists, like the KKK. Again, the senators either did not read the brief or they shamelessly took parts of it out of context to tar Pillard. In reality Pillard argued that a civil rights law was aimed at private groups that interfered with or ‘hindered’ the police’s ability to protect people’s rights, no matter who the private groups were. In no way could the brief be read to say that a moral equivalency exists between anti-abortion activists and violent groups like the KKK.

    Pillard in fact has a stellar record reflecting moderate views, and has received the support of Republicans, former law enforcement and military officials, conservatives, and many leading members of the Supreme Court bar from both parties.

    Sen. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) noted that Pillard “has had a distinguished career as a practitioner, as an academic … she’s argued nine cases before the Supreme Court … spent her legal career in public service … and for the past 13 years, she’s worked as a professor of my alma mater, Georgetown University Law Center.”

  • July 17, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    On the heels of reaching a limited deal in the Senate to move on seven executive branch nominations, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) urged the Senate to stop slow-walking and blocking nominations of African-Americans to the federal bench. 

    Although President Obama has made significant strides in diversifying the federal bench, too many of his minority nominees have faced delays or have seen their nominations scuttled. And a 2010 study of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts showed the federal bench is still dominated by men.

    Specifically the representatives who participated in a press briefing this morning hosted by the CBC took aim at Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for delaying the nominations of Brian Davis to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District and William L. Thomas for the U.S. District Court for  the District of the Southern District, who is openly gay.

    Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), said, “I am thoroughly frustrated that Marco Rubio is continuing to hold up the nomination of a stellar judge from Jacksonville. Judge Brian J. Davis was first nominated by President Obama last Februaryto serve on the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.”

    The Tampa Bay Times reported that both Davis and Thomas were approved by Florida’s Judicial Nominating Commission. According to the newspaper, Rubio and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley are troubled by comments made by Davis a decade ago about the resignation of Joycelyn Elders, the U.S. surgeon general during the Clinton administration.

    Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) noted that it is not just the Florida nominees that are being held up, saying the picture is large and disconcerting.

    A working group of the CBC chaired by Norton found that “while the president has kept pace and often surpassed prior presidents in black judicial appointments, a disproportionate number of African-American nominees have been held up or slowed. Almost one-third (10 of 33) of the judicial nominees currently pending in the Senate are African Americans.”

    She urged the Senate to stop delaying these nominees, concluding, “As our country has become one of the most diverse in the world, a judiciary that reflects that diversity is virtually mandatory. Respectfor the rule of law requires respect for the fairness of the judiciary. The Senate establishes the threshold of fairness by confirming a judiciary that represents the diversity of the citizenry whose cases federal judges are called upon to decide. The Congressional Black Caucus will not quietly allow highly-qualified African American judges to be sidelined without hearings or to be held up on the Senate floor after being voted out of the committee.”

    For more on the vacancy crisis on the federal bench, see JudicialNominations.org.

  • July 16, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As AEI’s Norman Ornstein predicted last week at a Common Cause event on the escalating use of the filibuster to scuttle consideration of legislation and nominations, senators crafted a deal to avoid a slight change to rules governing the filibuster.

    TPM’s Sahil Kapur reports that the deal means that nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department and the Export-Import Bank would get up-or-down votes in the Senate. Also Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, appointed to the NLRB via recess appointments and then re-nominated by President Obama would have to be replaced with new nominees, but with a written promise that the new nominees would be confirmed before the end of August. Following the deal the Senate voted to begin debate on the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the CFPB. Cordray’s (pictured) was recess-appointed to the position by President Obama because of Republican opposition to the agency created by financial overhaul legislation.

    Yesterday during an event at the Center for American Progress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that the only way for Senate Republicans to avoid a vote to slightly change the rules surrounding the filibuster would be to stop blocking consideration of the president’s executive branch nominees. Regarding today’s deal he said, “I think we see a way forward that will be good for everybody,” The New York Times reports.

    Common Cause, which last year lodged a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster, said the deal should be the start of further action on the filibuster.

    “A vote on these nominees should be just the starting point for rules changes that would break the Senate’s gridlock permanently,” said Common Cause Staff Counsel Stephen Spaulding. “Senate rules should guarantee a prompt review in committee and confirmation by a simple majority vote for ALL future presidential nominees.”

    In a recent guest post for ACSblog, former ethics attorney for President George W. Bush also urged action on the filibuster, saying the “situation is even worse under President Obama now that Senate Republicans who once said they despised the filibuster have shown they actually enjoy it.”

    Regarding judicial nominations, which were not on the table in the discussions that lead to today’s deal, there are more than 80 federal court vacancies, 32 of them considered judicial emergencies. The high vacancy rate has plagued the majority of Obama’s time in office. As noted here Republicans led by Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are threatening to scuttle or greatly stall President Obama’s nominations to fill the three vacant seats on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The D.C. Circuit hears myriad constitutional concerns, including many challenges to government regulations intended to enforce environmental laws. For more about vacancies on the federal bench, see JudicialNominations.org.

  • July 12, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Richard W. Painter, former Associate Counsel to the President and Chief White House ethics lawyer, 2005-2007. Painter is co-author of the ACS Issue Brief, “Extraordinary Circumstances: The Legacy of the Gang of 14 and a Proposal for Judicial Nominations Reform.”

    Word on Capitol Hill is that Senate Democrats are thinking seriously about changing the Senate's rules to make filibusters less likely. This is a welcome development because the filibuster -- a procedural mechanism for refusing to allow any vote to take place -- has no place in a body that prides itself on deliberation and decision. A decision not to decide, or to allow a minority of senators to prevent the others from deciding, is not deliberation. It is nothing more than obstruction, a way of saying that "if the majority won't vote my way I won't let them vote at all."

    Less than a decade ago the tables were turned and Democrats used filibusters to block President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. Republicans considered amending the Senate's rules to eliminate or reduce the likelihood of filibusters, but in the end they chickened out. They were perhaps more interested in preserving their power to frustrate a future Democratic president than in supporting President Bush. Perhaps they believed that even senators of the president's own political party benefit from filibusters because they can ask the White House for something in return for trying to break the filibuster. For whatever reason Senate Republicans failed to do something about the problem and some of President Bush's most qualified judicial nominees were kept off the federal courts as a result. Other nominees had to wait around for months before they were finally confirmed.

    This situation is even worse under President Obama now that Senate Republicans who once said they despised the filibuster have shown that they actually enjoy it. Thus far, Senate Democrats have followed the precedent of whining about the filibuster but not doing anything about it, perhaps fearing that they may once again be in the minority with a Republican in the White House.  

  • July 11, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may be nearing a vote to alter procedures around the filibuster, which Senate Republicans have used over and over again to kill consideration of major legislation and seriously delay or scuttle President Obama’s nominations to the federal bench and to executive branch openings. For that matter, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote the Senate Republicans “have filibustered almost everything, betting that voters will blame Democrats for the dysfunction in the Congress as much as they blame the GOP.”

    Reid, according to The New York Times is considering asking his Democratic peers in the Senate to vote to “take the exceptional step of barring the minority party from filibustering presidential appointees.” The report continues, however, that such action would not “affect filibusters of legislation or judicial nominees.” At the moment there are still more than 80 vacancies on the federal bench. The vacancies have hovered at 80 or above for years now. (See JudicialNominations.org for more information about the vacancies.)  

    Yesterday, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Republicans signaled they were preparing to delay or block President’s Obama’s nominees to the U.S. Court of appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

    Earlier this year Reid, after threatening a similar action on the filibuster, instead entered into an agreement with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that has been widely panned as ineffective.

    Reid, from the Senate floor, blasted McConnell for failing to adhere to the modest agreement. “Exactly three weeks after Senator McConnell committed to process nominees consistent with the norms and traditions of the Senate, he led Republicans in an unprecedented filibuster of a highly qualified nominee for Secretary of Defense,” Reid said. “Nothing could be a starker violation of a commitment to return to the norms and traditions of the Senate than launching the first-ever filibuster of a Secretary of Defense.”

    Reid ticked off other executive branch and federal agency positions that Republicans are stalling or threatening to block, such as nominations to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor.