Today the Senate took a historic step to change the filibuster rules for judicial nominees so that they only require 50 votes, and not 60, for confirmation. Referred to as the “nuclear option,” this rules change is a bold move by Senate leaders, and one forced upon them by obstructionist senators striving to block President Obama’s nominees. Quoting ACS President Caroline Fredrickson, “something had to give.”
Over the course of the past month these obstructionists have halted all three of President Obama’s candidates to fill the three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court. There are no credible doubts about these nominees’ qualifications. Instead, some senators tried to argue that the D.C. Circuit’s caseload doesn’t necessitate filling these vacancies, even though the Judicial Conference, headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, recommended maintaining the 11 seats on the D.C. Circuit.
The real reason for the blockade lies in the importance of the D.C. Circuit and some senators’ desire to maintain its conservative tilt. Of the eight active judges on the court, four judges were nominated by a Republican and four were nominated by a Democrat. However, there are six senior judges, five of whom were appointed by a Republican. These senior judges routinely hear cases and participate in court decisions, so their importance should not be underestimated. Often described as the second-most important court in the country, second only to the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit hears many complex and regulatory cases that involve the federal government. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid explained, “It is a troubling trend that Republicans are willing to block executive branch nominees even when they have no objection to the qualifications of the nominee... And they block qualified judicial nominees because they don’t want President Obama to appoint any judges to certain courts.” With the official government shutdown over, certain lawmakers embarked on an effort to shut down the judiciary instead.
There are 93 current vacancies in the federal judiciary and 38 judicial emergencies throughout the country. This leaves over 10 percent of the federal judicial system vacant, hindering people’s access to the courts in a timely manner. Facing this dire reality, Senate leaders reformed the filibuster rules to ensure that President Obama’s nominees get a fair vote and are not held hostage to a partisan agenda. The change was a necessary step to stem the judicial vacancies crisis from becoming an even larger emergency in the future, and to get the confirmation process back on track.