Federal judicial selection

  • December 13, 2013

    by Rebekah Dehaven

    This has been a busy week for judicial nominations. The Senate has remained in session over the course of several days and nights to allow for post-cloture time on judicial nominations to expire and to be able to vote on nominees’ confirmations.

    Patricia Millet was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday, filling the ninth seat on the 11-member court. In the early hours of Thursday, Cornelia “Nina” Pillard was also confirmed to the D.C. Circuit, filling the tenth seat. Robert Wilkins’s confirmation vote to fill the last remaining vacancy on that court is anticipated in the coming days.

    Four district court judges were also confirmed on Thursday: Landya McCafferty (D. N.H.); Elizabeth Wolford (W.D. N.Y.); Susan Watters (D. Mont.); and Brian Morris (D. Mont.). McCafferty, Wolford, and Watters are the first women to be confirmed to each of their courts. The seats filled by Wolford, Watters, and Morris were all judicial emergencies.

  • December 6, 2013
    On November 21, the Senate voted to change the rules on filibusters for judicial nominations to require 50, not 60, votes for cloture on a nominee. This so-called “nuclear option” was a controversial move, yet ultimately necessary to stop Senate obstructionists from effectively shutting down the judiciary with filibusters of President Obama’s nominees. 
    Following the rules change vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made a motion to reconsider the cloture vote on Patricia Millet for the D.C. Circuit, which was previously blocked. The vote on her confirmation is expected to be held when the Senate returns to session on December 9. It is anticipated that reconsideration of Federal Housing Finance Agency nominee Rep. Mel Watts (D-N.C.), as well as D.C. Circuit nominees Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and Richard Wilkins, will soon follow.
    ACS President Caroline Fredrickson explained: “With obstructionists in the Senate bent on shutting down the judiciary, something had to give…Our judicial system is hamstrung and a rules change was necessary to ensure it gets back up and running.” Leading up to the rules change, Fredrickson discussed the importance of confirming judicial nominees on PBS’s NewsHour and MSNBC’s The Cycle.
    Without the filibuster, the hope is that judicial nominations and confirmations will speed up when the Senate returns after the holidays. This depends, however, on the blue slip process, which some observers predict will be the obstructionist tactic of choice without the filibuster. Under current Senate Judiciary Committee rules, Senators must sign off on judicial nominees for judgeships in their state, known as “returning a nominee’s blue slip,” before the Committee can hold a hearing on a nominee.
    There are now a total of 53 pending nominees and 94 current vacancies. There are 38 judicial emergencies. 17 nominees are waiting for a vote on the Senate floor.
    For more information on the crisis in judicial nominations, see the latest from “In the News” and “Recommended Readings” from JudicialNominations.org, a project of ACS.
  • November 21, 2013

    by Rebekah DeHaven

    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.

  • November 19, 2013
    The D.C. Circuit continues to be the focus of the Senate battle over judicial nominations. On Monday, Senate Republicans blocked the third of President Obama’s three nominees to fill the remaining D.C. Circuit vacancies, Robert Wilkins. Nominee Cornelia “Nina” Pillard was filibustered on Nov. 12 and Patricia Millett was blocked on Oct. 31.
    As tensions mount, Senate Democratic leaders are increasingly open to talking about the “nuclear option” to change Senate filibuster rules. President Obama expressed his frustration with the D.C. Circuit obstruction, saying, “I am deeply disappointed that Senate Republicans have once again refused to do their job and give well-qualified nominees to the federal bench the yes-or-no votes they deserve.” ACS President Caroline Fredrickson concurred, noting, “[t]his endless obstruction is making it more difficult for cases to be heard and justice to be served.”
    Following the blocking of Wilkins’ nomination, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Urban League, NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National and Washington Bar Associations held a press conference to discuss the blocked D.C. Circuit nominations as well as the blocked nomination of Rep. Mel Watt to the Federal Finance Housing Agency. As Hilary Shelton of the NAACP, the groups are “sad, disappointed, and frankly outraged at obstructionist tactics.” Marc Morial of the National Urban League pointed out that the filibuster was “never intended to be used as a routine matter” and “has become a tool that is inimical to the Constitution.”
    In other judicial nominations news, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Nov. 14 to send four nominees on to the full Senate for a confirmation vote: Carolyn McHugh (10th Cir.), Pamela Reeves (E.D. Tenn.), Vince Chhabria (N.D. Calif.), and James Moody (E. D. Ark.). They join other nominees for a total of 17 nominees pending on the Senate floor.
    There are now a total of 53 pending nominees, and 93 current vacancies. There are 38 judicial emergencies.
    For more information on the crisis over judicial nominations, see the latest from “In the News” and “Recommended Readings” from JudicialNominations.org, a project of ACS.
  • November 8, 2013
    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit with three vacancies is a flashpoint for the partisan battle over judicial nominations. Last week, Senate Republicans blocked the confirmation of Patricia Millet to the D.C. Circuit, using misleading rhetoric about the court’s caseload and accusing President Obama of trying to “pack” the court. (The infographic on the right helps clear up the outlandish court-packing rhetoric being peddled by Senate obstructionists and their allies.)
    In addition to Millet, nominees Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and Robert Wilkins are pending before the Senate, with a vote on Pillard scheduled for next Tuesday. Senate Republicans have vowed to continue blocking these nominees, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has indicated that he is open to discussing the so-called “nuclear option” of changing filibuster rules if necessary to get nominees through.
    In other judicial nominations news, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on October 31 to send the nominations of Robert Wilkins (D.C. Cir.) and five district court nominations to the full Senate for confirmation votes. They join other nominations for a total of 15 pending on the Senate floor.
    On November 7, President Obama announced four new nominees: Robin S. Rosenbaum (11 Cir.), James D. Peterson (W.D. Wis.), Nancy J. Rosenstengel (S.D. Ill.), and Ronnie L. White (E.D. Mo.). There are now a total of 53 pending nominees, and 92 current vacancies.
    For more information on the crisis over judicial nominations, see the latest from In the News” and “Recommended Readings” from JudicialNominatinos.org, a project of ACS.