Senate Judiciary Committee

  • October 12, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Russell Wheeler, Visiting Fellow, Governance Studies, Brookings

    Federal courts are facing a toxic mix of judges creating vacancies at an usually high rate and some Republican senators exploiting Senate traditions to prevent nominations in their states. And the Senate Judiciary Committee and Republican Conference leadership have aggressively slowed down confirmation of those nominations that make it to the Senate.*

    The net effect is a sharp increase in vacant judgeships, putting additional strains on sitting judges, including those who have earned a right to a reduced workload. It mainly affects civil litigants, including small businesses, because of criminal cases’ statutory priority. In the final two years of the Reagan, Clinton and Bush two-term presidencies -- all with divided government -- vacancies decreased. That seems highly unlikely in these final two years of the Obama presidency.

    The October 5 confirmation of a district judge reawakened complaints that seven confirmations in 2015 compare poorly to the 33 confirmations at the same point in 2007, George W. Bush’s seventh year in office.

    In response, majority members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have said that the Senate, over the six-plus years of the Obama administration, has confirmed more judges than in the comparable period of the Bush administration.

    That’s true -- as of October 5, 310 Obama confirmations versus 265 Bush confirmations.

    They’ve also complained, as did Senator John Cornyn on the Senate floor on September 17 (repeating almost verbatim a July 30 floor statement by Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley), that Senate Democrats confirmed 11 judges “at the end of last year.” (Actually, it was 12, on December 16, and most were unanimous.)

    Leaving 11 nominations for confirmation in 2015, said Cornyn, would have put the Senate “roughly . . . on pace for judicial nominations this year compared to 2007.”

    That’s only true with a tortured definition of “roughly on pace.” Eighteen is not “roughly” the same as 33. And those 33 confirmations in 2007 represent a 13.0 percent increase over the number on January 1, 2007.  Even moving 11 confirmations from 2014 to 2015 would have produced only a 9.9 percent increase over the January 1, 2015, number.

    More important, though, neither claim is particularly relevant. The ultimate purpose of the confirmation process is to fill vacant judgeships, not to create comparative confirmation scorecards.

  • April 23, 2015
    Guest Post

    by K.O. Myers, coordinator of the Iowa Fair Courts Coalition, and Development and Operations Manager at One Iowa in Des Moines.

    On April 14, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) recommended candidates to fill two upcoming District Court vacancies here in his home state of Iowa. If President Obama takes the Senator’s suggestions, he’ll nominate Magistrate Judge Leonard Strand for an opening on the Northern District of Iowa, and state district Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger for the Southern District. The nominations will then go to the Senate Judiciary Committee to begin a lengthy confirmation process where, if recent history is any guide, they’ll collide with one of their biggest obstacles to confirmation: the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley.

    Article II of the Constitution reserves an important “advice and consent” role for the Senate in confirming the president’s judicial nominees. These are lifetime appointments, with the power to invalidate actions of the political branches. Under our thoughtfully designed system of checks and balances, it makes sense that neither the legislative nor executive should have exclusive control over staffing the judiciary.

    As chair of the Judiciary Committee, Grassley wields enormous influence on the confirmation process. He sets the agenda for the committee, and is responsible for scheduling hearings and votes on pending nominees. Potential judges can’t proceed to a Senate floor vote until they’ve been vetted by the committee.

    Unfortunately, Grassley and his Republican Senate colleagues have enthusiastically embraced the “check” portion of that famous formula, and don’t seem particularly concerned about “balance.” On the day Grassley announced his recommendations, the Senate held its first vote on a judicial nomination, three months after the Republican majority took over in January, unanimously confirming Alfred H. Bennett to a vacancy in the Southern District of Texas. On April 20, the Senate held a second vote, confirming George C. Hanks, Jr. As former Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy noted after the first vote, by April of 2007 the Democratically controlled Senate had confirmed 15 of then-President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. (In fairness to Grassley, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is responsible for scheduling confirmation votes on the Senate floor.)

  • February 27, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to report four judicial nominees to the Senate floor: Alfred H. Bennett, George C. Hanks, Jr., and Jose Rolando Olvera, Jr., to be U.S. District Judges for the Southern District of Texas, and Jill N. Parrish to be a U.S. District Judge for the District of Utah. 

    Also on Thursday, the White House announced the nomination of Mary Barzee Flores and Julien Xavier Neals to serve on the United States District Courts. Flores is nominated to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, and Neals is nominated to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

    People for the American Way discuss at their blog the problem with Republican inaction as judicial emergencies increase. Due to delays in identifying recommendations for vacancies and scheduling committee votes, there are now multiple situations in which vacancies have become judicial emergencies.

    There are currently 49 vacancies, and 20 are now considered judicial emergencies. There are 14 pending nominees. For more information see judicialnominations.org.

  • February 20, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    Peter Weber writes for  The Week that liberals should care more about federal judges. The recent spate of judicial activism from conservative federal judges, he argues, shows that if they are concerned about policy, “liberals may want to start paying attention to the third branch of the federal government.”

    The blog for the Alliance for Justice examines how Republicans, despite controlling the Senate Judiciary Committee now, are still clearly obstructing judicial nominees and often for no apparent reason.

    A Massachusetts state panel is convening to consider applications for a U.S. District Court vacancy in Boston, reports Mass Live. The names of potential candidates will eventually make their way to the president, who will ultimately decide on his nomination.

    There are currently 49 vacancies, and 19 are now considered judicial emergencies. There are 14 pending nominees. For more information see judicialnominations.org.

  • September 24, 2013

    by Nicandro Iannacci

    As the adage goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Take, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which convened a hearing last week to consider mandatory minimum sentencing reform. The meeting came on the heels of recent announcements from Attorney General Eric Holder that signaled change in the executive enforcement of sentencing laws. The reigning congressional climate of polarization, clouded in recent weeks by impending fiscal fights, made all the more compelling the general agreement across ideological divides that change is needed, now.

    Competing legislation introduced this year is evidence of that consensus, even if the parties involved don’t totally agree on specifics. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was introduced in March; the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), was announced just last month. The bills have much in common, though the Leahy-Paul proposal goes further than its counterpart by eliminating entirely mandatory sentences for selected non-drug crimes.

    Nevertheless, the sponsors of both bills were short on comparison and long on unison as they addressed the issue before a packed hearing room featuring numerous family members of loved ones serving mandatory sentences. Sen. Leahy, chairman of the committee, called the current system “unsustainable,” noting that the U.S. prison population has risen 700 percent since 1970, paralleling a rise in cost to $6.4 billion per year. “Fiscal responsibility demands it,” he said of reform. “Justice demands it.” Sen. Durbin asked a simple question of the sentencing laws: “Is America safer?” Answering in the negative, he said Congress is “doing everything we can to sensibly reduce the level of incarceration in this country.”

    From across the aisle, Sen. Paul kicked off the agenda with a scathing condemnation of the impact sentencing laws have on minority groups. “If I told you that one out of three African American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “One out of three African-American males are forbidden from voting because of the War on Drugs.” (His comments echoed the work of OSU Prof. Michelle Alexander in her important book, The New Jim Crow, featured on ACS BookTalk.)