February 8, 2011

Federal Judges Retiring at Rate of One Per Week, Newspaper Reports

On the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, three out of four seats are vacant. The Senate failed to vote last session on two judicial nominees who could have filled those seats, and Chief Judge Michael McCuskey continues to look for ways to make his court function, commuting 90 miles between Urbana and Springfield, and relying on two 81-year-old senior judges to handle the district's caseload, The Washington Post reports.

"I had a heart attack six years ago, and my cardiologist told me recently, 'You need to reduce your stress,'" McCuskey told The Post. "I told him only the U.S. Senate can reduce my stress [by confirming judges]."

In 2011, federal judges have been retiring at the rate of one per week, "driving up vacancies that have nearly doubled since President Obama took office," The Post reports in a front-page story declaring a judicial vacancy "crisis."

The Senate made progress yesterday in filling some of these vacancies by confirming three judges to seats on federal courts in Arkansas, Oregon and Texas. But they have a lot of ground to make up for, with the Senate confirming only 60 nominees in Obama's first two years - the lowest number in 35 years, according to The Post.

As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy noted in a statement after the vote, the Senate failed to vote on all three of these nominees last term, even though they were all "noncontroversial."

"Given the serious need on those courts, and the qualifications of these nominees, there is no reason they could not have been confirmed when they were nominated and reported unanimously by the Judiciary Committee last Congress," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said. "... I am hopeful that our actions today signal a return to regular order in the consideration of nominations without unexplained and damaging delays."

In an address at an ACS National Press Club event last week, White House Counsel Robert Bauer said the administration planned to "use all the resources at our disposal to bring attention to the issue and work on a bipartisan basis.'' In the days since his address, Obama and the Senate have taken steps in this direction, citing a "gentleman's agreement" struck between Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to eliminate the procedural tactics blocking votes on nominees.

As they continue to wait for Senate confirmation votes, jurisdictions have declared judicial emergencies, suspending normal timelines set out by the Speedy Trial Act for criminal cases, and balancing loads as high as 1,200 cases per judge. Civil cases have seen the "most visible" effects, with delays of up to three years, The Post reports.

"Ultimately, I think people will lose faith in the rule of law,'' said Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California. "We as a nation believe that if you have a dispute, you go to court and within a reasonable period of time, you get a decision.''

Watch ACS's event on Judicial Nominations in 2011 featuring Bauer here and read the text of Bauer's prepared remarks here. To learn more about federal judicial vacancies and follow the latest developments, visit JudicialNominations.org.