Judicial Nominations

  • 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.

  • July 10, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Because of the heighted partisanship that has engulfed the U.S. Senate, President Obama has had great difficulty filling vacant seats on the federal bench and within the executive branch, even with nominees that the Republican Party would typically embrace. Case in point is the nomination of a Patricia Millett, an accomplished appellate court attorney who has argued more than 30 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, to fill one of three vacant seats on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. As Think Progress’ Ian Millhiser notes Millett also raked in more than “a million dollars last year representing wealthy clients at the elite law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Field,” and has defended the pro-business Supreme Court as actually impartial on corporate interests that have come before it.

    But Millett and the other nominees to the D.C. Circuit are on a difficult path to confirmation, largely because of Republican’s desire to continue wreaking havoc on President Obama’s agenda, regardless of how moderate it is.

    July 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee opened the battle with a hearing on Millett’s nomination, which showcased a bit about her qualifications, but even more about Republicans’ political machinations.  

    The hearing, as Legal Times’ Todd Ruger put it had little to do with Millett’s qualifications to serve on the federal bench. “The fight about her nomination” to the D.C. Circuit “isn’t about her.” Instead Ruger noted Millett spent most of her time “listening to Republicans explain the political rationale behind why they will fight against her confirmation.”

  • July 9, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    To hear Ranking Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) tell it, the Senate is not the chamber where noncontroversial judicial and executive branch nominees languish.

    Yesterday when the Senate confirmed Gregory Phillips to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, Grassley crowed in a press statement that “the Senate is processing the President’s nominees exceptionally fairly. President Obama is certainly being treated more fairly in the beginning of his second term than Senate Democrats treated President Bush in 2005. It is not clear to me how allowing more votes so far this year than President Bush got in an entire year amounts to ‘unprecedented delays and obstruction.’”

    Grassley has long argued that there is no obstruction of judicial nominees in the Senate, that vacancies on the federal bench have remained high because the president has been slow to put forth nominees and that one of the most powerful federal appeals court circuits is not all that busy, so it should be stripped of three judgeships. All of these assertions are beyond wobbly, they’re intentionally misleading. Grassley’s arguments for yanking judgeships from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit are especially obnoxious, aimed at trying to ensure that the D.C. Circuit remains tilted to the right for as long as possible.

    Despite the nominations that have been confirmed this year, there remain more than 80 vacancies on the federal bench, for a reason. Many of this year’s confirmations for example, should have happened in the previous Congress. Instead, the president’s judicial nominees have endured a significantly longer and divisive path to confirmation than Bush’s.

    When Phillips was confirmed for a Tenth Circuit judgeship, Sen. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) shot back at Grassley’s pronouncements on the success of Obama’s judicial nominations, noting that confirmations occurring this year were long overdue, essentially highlighting the fact that the length of time from nomination to confirmation has expanded because of the delaying tactics of Senate Republicans.

  • July 2, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Senate Republicans’ agenda of delaying or scuttling judicial nominations has had a particularly corrosive impact on the U.S. District Courts where there are currently 65 vacancies. A July 2 report from the Brennan Center for Justice reveals the large number of vacancies has stayed consistent for five consecutive years for the first time in 20 years.

    Brennan Center Counsel Alicia Bannon in a statement about the report said, “Our trial courts are in trouble. As seats remain unfilled, millions of Americans who rely on district courts are being denied the justice they deserve. District courts can no longer wait. The president and the Senate must find a way to fill these crucial seats. The report, authored by Bannon, also finds that “average caseload in 2009-2012 was 13 percent higher than the average for the preceding four years. Had all vacancies been filled between 2009 and 2012, judges would have had an average of 42 fewer pending cases each year.”

    The larger caseloads are hampering the ability of district courts nationwide to dispense justice, but are having, the report says, an even greater burden on districts where judicial emergencies exist. “Analysis shows that judicial emergencies – a designation of districts with an acute need for judges – have been higher in 2010-2012 than at any other point since 2002,” the Brennan Center notes.

    The report cites several factors that “likely account for the unusually high and sustained level of district court vacancies since 2009. District courts experienced an atypically large number of retirements during the first three years of the Obama presidency, leading to a surge in the number open seats, while at the same time, fewer total district court nominees were confirmed during President Obama’s first term than in other recent administrations. Nominees also faced record wait times from nomination to confirmation in the Senate as compared to other recent administrations, and the President trailed his predecessors with respect to the number of judges nominated during his first three years in office. Finally, many home state senators have been slow to recommend nominees to the President, particularly in states with two Republican senators, which has delayed the process of identifying the nominees.”

    Other reports have shown that Obama has long since picked up the pace of putting forth nominees, but Senate Republicans have not altered their agenda of obstruction. Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have not only continued to slow-walk the president’s judicial nominations, they are holding up his nominations to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and nominations to the five-member National Labor Relations Board. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has even pushed a measure to cut the number of judgeships on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.