Obstruction of Judicial Nominations Fueled by Politics, Hobbling the Justice System

October 17, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

Senate Republicans have made a mess of the judicial nominations process, ensuring that the road from nomination to confirmation during President Obama’s first term is incredibly long, arduous and unnecessarily divisive. A likely reason for the judicial nominations debacle centers on Republicans' desire to keep the federal bench tilted as far rightward as possible. So they obstruct judicial selections, keep as many seats open as possible in hopes their Party captures the Senate and White House in November.

But as The New York Times noted in an Oct. 17 editorial at some point very soon the political nonsense needs to stop. It’s obvious. But take a look at JudicialNominations.org, where you’ll see that the federal court system has nearly 80 vacancies, with more than 30 of those vacancies deemed “emergency vacancies” by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts of the federal bench. So as the editorial notes, access to justice continues to be a tougher endeavor since courts are not running efficiently. As The Times puts it:

The holdups have cost Americans dearly — in justice delayed (it now generally takes two years to get a federal civil trial) and justice denied. It is time to adopt a more efficient, less political approach to district court confirmations. The courts must be brought to full strength so they can meet the demands for justice. The next president and the new Senate should make reforming the confirmation process a paramount priority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been a leading character in the effort to scuttle the president’s judicial selections, largely for political reasons. Early in the Obama administration, McConnell (pictured) told a gathering at the Heritage Foundation that his Party’s “top political priority” was to deny Obama a second term. If McConnell’s Party can swing that feat, they’ll have plenty of seats to fill and the ability to keep the federal bench tilted rightward.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is among the Senate’s strongest supporters of moving forward on judicial nominations. Over and over again the senator has blasted his Republican colleagues for their intransigence on the process. In early September Leahy called out Republicans for blocking an attempt by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to force a vote on 17 district court nominees before the lawmakers left town for campaigning. (District court nominees have traditionally been confirmed quicker and with less confrontation than nominees to the appeals courts. But under Republicans, even moving district court nominees through the confirmation process have become a nightmare.)

“Senate Republicans are putting partisanship ahead of the interests of the American people,” Leahy said of the effort to move along district court nominees. “I have served in the Senate for 37 years, and I have never seen so many judicial nominees, reported with bipartisan support, be denied a simple-up-or-down vote for four months, five months, six months, even 11 months.”

The Times editorial hit it on the head, the confirmation process “has been broken” by Republicans who “have used the filibuster to block judicial nominees for no reason except to prevent President Obama from filing the seats.”

Regardless of the outcome of the 2012 general elections, the next Senate needs to do some serious repair work by filling longstanding vacancies on the federal bench. The lower federal courts decide the large majority of legal matters in the country and the American people deserve access to a court system that operates at full potential.

A new ACS paper, “Courts Matter: Justice on the Line,” details the importance judges have on shaping law and policy. The paper focuses on the nation’s highest court, but provides a stark reminder of how important the justice system is to protecting fundamental rights, such as the right to privacy and equality. An inefficient federal bench makes the job of protecting those cherished rights much more difficult.

[image via Gage Skidmore]