Senate obstruction of judicial nominees, two Supreme Court vacancies, public apathy and competing priorities all have contributed to the slow pace at which federal court seats have been filled during the Obama administration, experts explained during a lively ACS panel discussion on the judicial selection and confirmation process.
As the number of vacancies on the federal courts rises to an alarming level, the risk of failing to fill these empty seats is that "people will lose confidence not only in the justice system, but in Congress' ability to support it," said American Bar Association President Elect Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III.
Panelists discussed the process of filling a seat on the federal bench, from the way in which state nominating commissions affect the vetting process in particular states, to the President's deferral to Senators from a given state on that state's nominees. Each of these steps presents an opportunity for delay, the panelists explained, but once a candidate is nominated by the president, it is Senate confirmation that stands in a nominee's way.
During the Obama administration, the Senate has confirmed nominees to the district court at a much slower rate than occurred under President George Bush, said Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow Russell Wheeler.
"It's true that in the lame-duck session of Congress in 2004, the Senate confirmed 17 Bush nominees," Wheeler explained. "Now, I guess it's theoretically possible for the Senate to confirm some more Obama nominees in the lame duck, but I certainly wouldn't hold my breath to see that happen."
Robert Raben, president and founder of The Raben Group and an ACS Board Member, said the Democrats have done an "inadequate job" of creating a constituency that cares about judges.
"I don't think Republicans are by their nature more obstructionist on this issue. I think they're better at it," Raben said. "For some of them it's more passionate, and the Democratic opposition to their opposition is not that strong.
"There isn't a coherent mass of political effort on the Democratic side saying judges matter," Raben added.
Robinson agreed with this sentiment, explaining that the ABA is strengthening its efforts to educate the public about the importance of judges.
"When delays of this magnitude occur, those who really suffer are the people," Robinson said.
Watch the full video below, and visit JudicialNominations.org to learn more about the judicial nominations process and track developments.