Judicial Nominations

  • May 22, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.), the chamber’s ringleader of obstruction of Obama nominations, particularly judicial ones, is whining about the possibility of Senate action that could hobble an integral tool of obstructionists – the filibuster.

    But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) has tried to work with McConnell on this matter before and wound up with a pretty weak deal, one that McConnell would subsequently mock. Earlier in the year the two reached an agreement that was supposed to help move along some of Obama’s nominations to the federal bench, especially those to the U.S. District Courts. Since then, however, Republicans appear ready to scuttle the nominations of Thomas Perez to head the Labor Department and Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. For good measure the Senate obstructionists are also seeking to prevent the administration from filling all the vacant seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and blocking the president’s selections to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board.

    In a press statement, Reid signaled he may be ready to push for a majority vote to alter the filibuster to help change the status quo in Congress, which is gridlock. Reid noted, as many others have for some time now, that McConnell and his cohorts have changed the rules of the Senate by demanding supermajority votes to consider legislation and increasingly to kill judicial and executive branch nominations.

    Reid said:

    Due to Republican obstruction, the de facto threshold for too many nominees to be confirmed has risen from a simple majority to a supermajority of 60 votes. On judicial nominees, Republicans’ obstruction is equally unprecedented. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service confirms that President Obama is the only president in the last three decades whose highly qualified nominees have been forced to wait more than half a year from nomination to confirmation. There is no reason to delay qualified nominees for so long except delay itself, and it is little wonder we have a judicial vacancy crisis in this country.

    McConnell took to the Senate floor, TPM”s Sahil Kapur reports, to claim that Reid’s talk of reforming the filibuster amounted to intimidation. “Their view is that you had better confirm the people we want, when we want them, or we’ll break the rules of the Senate to change to the rules so you can’t stop us,” he said.

    It’s of course McConnell and his gang who have changed the rules. Their Party failed to win enough seats to control the Senate and lost a bid to take the White House. So they’re continuing their mission to obstruct, delay and start again. Reid is the one on solid ground here. Senate Republicans and their counterparts in the House of Representatives like things just the way they are.

  • May 22, 2013

    by Russell Wheeler, Visiting Fellow, Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (CA-DC for short) has more vacancies, and a greater proportion of vacancies to judgeships, than any other federal appellate court. Appointees of President George W. Bush or his father hold four of the court’s 11 judgeships, and appointees of President Clinton hold three. Six senior judges, all but one Republican appointees, are on the draw but able to take reduced caseloads.

    Senate Republicans and their press allies believe the status quo is basically fine. They refused to allow a vote on one Obama nominee, Caitlin Halligan, bowing to National Rifle Association claims that she’s too liberal to serve in the federal judiciary. They appear willing to allow a vote on a second Obama nominee, the very capable Srikanth Srinivasan, who has served in both the Bush and Obama Justice Departments.

    But, they say, Srinivasan is enough. Why? The reason most commonly offered is that CA-DC doesn’t need more judges because it has a light caseload. Ranking Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles Grassley said, correctly, that its 108 filings per judgeship in 2012 was lowest in the country.

    Others respond, just as correctly, that raw filings hardly tell the whole story of a court’s workload. It’s impossible to compare accurately the workloads of the 13 courts of appeals because the federal judiciary has developed no accurate way to “weight” different case types in those courts—as compared to the fairly sophisticated method for weighting district court caseloads.

    But there is no doubt that CA-DC has a heavy docket of appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies, appeals that do not benefit from initial review in the district courts. Former CA-DC chief judge Patricia Wald recently described them as “the most complex, time-consuming, labyrinthine disputes over regulations. . .cases [that] require thousands of hours of preparation by the judges, often consuming days of argument, involving hundreds of parties and interveners, and necessitating dozens of briefs and thousands of pages of record — all of which culminates in lengthy, technically intricate legal opinions.”

  • May 21, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) a champion of obstructing President Obama’s nominations to the federal bench and some to executive branch positions, has focused special attention on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

    The D.C. Circuit is a significant court that hears high-profile national security concerns and cases regarding federal regulation, among other lofty matters. Patricia Wald, retired, served on the august Circuit court for 20 years, including five as its chief judge. She noted in a piece for The Washington Post, “Aside from the U.S. Supreme Court, it resolves more constitutional questions involving separation of powers and executive prerogatives than any court in the country.”

    The eleven-member court has four vacancies and President Obama has yet to fill one of them, because of Senate obstructionism. Senate Republicans twice scuttled Obama’s nomination of Caitlin Halligan to fill one of the Court’s vacancies. Some pundits say too much focus is placed on increasing obstructionism and grope for other excuses for the federal bench’s high vacancy rate. (See JudicialNominations.org for more on the vacancies.) But those pundits are simply uniformed or disingenuous. Republicans, led by the ringleader of obstruction, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) have stalled nominees to the Circuit courts and even some to the federal district courts. At The Dish, Andrew Sullivan has blasted the GOP for its rampant obstructionism, in reporting on a Party that has become increasingly hostile to governing.

    The D.C. Circuit with its four Republican appointees and three Democratic appointees has eagerly invalidated regulations to protect the environment, which is good for corporations, bad for humans, and earlier this year issued an opinion re-writing the president’s recess appointment power. Several of the D.C. Circuit's judges are also on senior status, which means they have much more flexibility in what cases they participate, and a greater chance exists that a three-judge panel will more often be made up of three Republican appointees. It’s a Court that caters to corporate interests, which is likely one, if not the compelling reason, Grassley and other Republicans are striving to keep Obama from placing judges on the Court.

    Grassley a part of the apparatus that blocked Halligan has not, so far, stood in the way of another nominee to the D.C. Circuit, Sri Srinivasan. But Grassley is pushing legislation that would cut the number of judges on the bench, signaling an effort to make sure the president has no more chances to shape the make-up of the D.C. Circuit. Grassley would move judgeships to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

    Part of Grassley’s push entails the canard that the D.C. Circuit has a light caseload. The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Judith E. Schaeffer in post for the group’s Text & History blog blasted Grassley’s effort as a “partisan sham.” She continued, adding that the Grassley effort amounted to “a ‘mass filibuster’ of President Obama’s future nominees to this critical circuit court. Senator Grassley’s bill is nothing more than a ploy to give cover to Senate Republicans who have no intention of letting a Democratic president fill those three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit.”

    The right-wing editorial board of The Wall Street Journal has also joined Grassley’s cause. In a May 20 editorial, it apes Grassley’s talking points, saying the D.C. Circuit “doesn’t need the judges. The D.C. Circuit is among the most underworked court in the federal system.”

  • May 16, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    A bit of good news emerged earlier today from the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Sri Srinivasan’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was unanimously approved.

    This puts Srinivasan, the principal deputy solicitor general, a step closer to a judgeship that he was originally a nominated for in June of last year. Showing how distorted the nominations process has become, what made this story unusual wasn’t the nearly one-year long wait he endured (unfortunately such waits are now so commonplace that they don’t draw much mention), rather it was how he was unanimously approved. In today’s Senate such bipartisan actions are rare.

    While this was a significant win for the Obama administration, it comes amidst growing obstructionism of executive branch nominations at all levels. This obstructionism has been so spectacularly effective that despite the fact that there’ve been three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit for most of the Obama Presidency, he has thus far been unable to confirm any judges to the court. His first choice, New York Lawyer Catlin Halligan, was filibustered twice by Senate Republicans, even though her qualifications were exceptional and had supporters on both sides of the aisle.

    Meanwhile, the Republican appointees on the D.C. Circuit continue to rule against government regulation and worker’s rights. Two weeks ago, the court struck down a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rule requiring employers to post notices containing information about workers’ rights to unionize. The decision was par for the course for the Court, which also ruled that recess appointments to the NLRB were unconstitutional, struck down an Environmental Protection Agency rule intended to control air pollution that crosses state lines, and openly flouted Supreme Court precedent on national security. It all adds up to a Court that’s the most business-friendly (and powerful) in the country, and Senate Republicans have fought to keep it that way.

  • May 14, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Norman J. Ornstein, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann are authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. 

    Few members of the Senate have professed more concern about dysfunction in the nomination and confirmation process than Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Alexander is a wonk who cares about policy-making and problem solving. And, most importantly, it gets personal with Lamar -- he had his own unpleasant experience with the Senate's long-broken confirmation process when he came up as a nominee for Secretary of Education. Commendably, Lamar worked in a bipartisan fashion last year, with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and others to streamline the process by removing a number of lower level executive nominees from the requirement for Senate confirmation.

    What has happened to that Lamar Alexander? His persona seems to have been kidnapped and replaced by partisan warrior Lamar Alexander, participating in a series of abuses of the confirmation process that are both denying a president elected by a wide margin from selecting his own people to serve and attempting to block agencies from being able to function by filibustering or applying blanket holds to clearly qualified nominees -- what Tom Mann and I have called the new nullification.

    We have seen the latter both with the NLRB, ever since Obama became president in 2009, and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency charged with implementing Obamacare, since the Affordable Care Act was enacted. Faced with the prospect of a National Labor Relations Board actually functioning and making decisions that reflected the majority, Republicans in the Senate filibustered to block any nominees, no matter how qualified, to prevent the agency from having a quorum. Frustrated after a long period of such behavior, Obama used recess appointments to get the agency working-- and then had to deal with a sweeping appeals court decision, written by the highly partisan judge David Sentelle, the same judge who fired competent and fair-minded Whitewater Independent Counsel Robert Fiske and replaced him with Kenneth Starr, outlawing almost all recess appointments. The decision is under appeal, but Alexander is calling for the removal of Obama-named commissioners, and also calling for them to be blocked from re-nomination in the future, before the court case has been finally litigated.