Senate obstructionism

  • June 4, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama is not shying away from a high-profile nominations battle with the U.S. Senate’s rabid obstructionists. In announcing today three nominations to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the president is taking on senators, such as Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who have mounted a concerted effort to block him from bringing balance to the D.C. Circuit, which currently has a strong rightward tilt.

    Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is arguing that the D.C. Circuit, which hears myriad cases involving weighty constitutional issues, has enough judges and does not need anymore. He is pushing a bill to chop the number of seats on the 11-member Court to eight. The bill has little chance of enactment because it likely could not pass the Senate. But that’s not the point. The point, as Judith Schaeffer of the Constitutional Accountability Center has noted, is to provide cover for Grassley’s partners in obstruction. The obstructionists will have difficulty arguing that the president’s nominees are ideological extremists, but they will take Grassley’s line that the D.C. Circuit has plenty of judges for its caseload.

    But Grassley is pushing an outrageously ludicrous line, one that’s also laden with hypocrisy. Grassley had no problem helping Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush place judges on the D.C. Circuit, which included the far right Judge Janice Rogers Brown.

    Patricia Wald, who served on the D.C. Circuit for 20 years, including five as its chief judge, wrote earlier this year that the Court hears some of the weightiest and time-consuming constitutional and national security cases of any of the federal appeals court circuits. She also noted that the D.C. Circuit’s caseload has grown since G.W. Bush’s administration, when Grassley was striving to confirm nominations to that bench. “The number of pending cases per judge has grown from 119 in 2005 to 188 today,” she wrote.

    In announcing nominations for the D.C. Circuit’s three vacant seats, Obama noted his responsibility in nominating “qualified men and women to serve as judges” and Congress’s responsibility in the matter. Congress has a “constitutional duty to promptly consider judicial nominees for confirmation.” The president nominated Patricia Ann Millett, a longtime appellate attorney, Nina Pillard, a law professor at Georgetown Law Center and Judge Robert Wilkins, who is serving on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. 

    Obama noted that during his first term senators too often failed to provide consideration of his nominees. Indeed, despite what mainstream reporters would have us believe, the battle over judicial nominations has only gotten more pitched during Obama’s presidency. Vacancies on the bench spiked during his first term and have remained hovering around 80 since.

  • June 3, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    ACS President Caroline Fredrickson provided context to the discussion over Senate Republicans’ efforts to scuttle President Obama’s judicial nominations, in particular focusing on the three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

    During a June 2 segment on MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry” show, Fredrickson said Americans should understand that a “vast majority” of high-profile and constitutional weighty cases have to be heard by the D.C. Circuit.

    “Major cases involving regulations” of our health care system, environment, and workers’ rights are heard by the Court, as well as major national security cases and voting rights cases. The majority of such cases are “required to go to the D.C. Circuit,” meaning the Court is one of the more powerful in the country, she said. And as noted on this blog frequently Senate Republicans, especially Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), are bent on keeping the president from making a lasting imprint on the D.C. Circuit. For instance, Grassley is pushing a bill to cut the 11-member court to eight seats thereby preventing Obama from placing any more judges on that court. (Recently the Senate confirmed Obama’s nomination of Sri Srinivasan to a seat on the D.C. Circuit, after twice blocking the president’s initial nomination to the Court.)

    Fredrickson noted that when George W. Bush was president Grassley had no complaints about the number of seats on the D.C. Circuit, instead strongly supporting the president’s constitutional duty to fill vacancies on the federal bench. Fredrickson noted that Grassley and other Republicans “fought like hell to get George Bush’s nominees on the D.C. Circuit when the caseload was not only lower, but they wanted to go right up to the 11th seat and now they say eight is plenty.”

    Fredrickson and the other panelists, including the Alliance for Justice’s Nan Aron, also touched upon discussion in the Senate to alter the filibuster to make it more transparent and a bit more difficult for the obstructionists to abuse. Part of the reason for renewed interest in reforming the filibuster is that Senate Republicans are showing no signs of making it any easier for the president to fill judicial vacancies and some executive branch vacancies.

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  • May 28, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Some beltway pundits have long-pleaded with the Obama administration to “flood-the zone,” Washington-speak – in this instance – for making a lot more nominations all at once to the federal bench.

    These pundits may have a bit to celebrate if President Obama puts forth three nominations to vacant seats on the 11-member U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as The New York Times reports may happen soon. That Court noted here often, is one of the more powerful among the appeals circuit courts, in part, because of the myriad and weighty constitutional concerns it rules on, many of which center on federal regulations. As The Times and many others have pointed out the D.C. Circuit has tilted rightward, thanks in part to the fact that an overwhelming majority of its senior judges are Republican-appointees. The Times noted the D.C. Circuit “has overturned major parts of the president’s agenda in the last four years, on regulations covering Wall Street, the environment, tobacco, labor unions and workers’ rights.”

    The Times reports that the potential nominees -- the White House would not comment on nominations not yet made – include three “experienced lawyers who would be unlikely to generate controversy individually.”

    But Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) despite their protestations to the contrary have worked to stall or scuttle too many of the president’s judicial and executive branch nominations. The D.C. Circuit, at the moment is a business friendly outfit, recently issuing an opinion undermining the workers’ rights, is especially important to both leaders. Last month as Senate Judiciary Committee was conducting its hearing on Sri Srinivasan, the only Obama nominee to be confirmed the Court (finally), Grassley introduced a bill that would eliminate three judgeships on the D.C. Circuit and transfer them to the other circuit courts. In part Grassley argued that the D.C. Circuit’s caseload is light and other circuits need the judgeships more. Grassley’s effort has been blasted by the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Judith E. Schaeffer as 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 editorialists at The Wall Street Journal lauded Grassley’s effort saying President Obama, upset with the D.C. Circuit’s rulings, was aiming to “pack” the Court with judges to alter its ideological make-up.

    Russell Wheeler, an expert on federal courts, disagreed in an ACSblog post, citing a 1996 speech by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist in which he noted the right of presidents to place their imprints on the judiciary. Rehnquist, Wheeler wrote, said, “When vacancies occur … on any of the federal courts, replacements are nominated by the President, who has been elected by the people of the entire nation, and subject to confirmation by the Senate, whose members have been elected by the people of their respective states. Both the President and the Senate have felt free to take into consideration the likely judicial philosophy of federal judges.”

  • 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.”