Senate Obstructionists Appear Ready to Doom Another Judicial Nomination

March 5, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Despite the so-called “rules reform” the ardent Republican obstructionists that occupy the U.S. Senate are at it again – filibustering Caitlin Halligan for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Speaking of the rules reform, it was convenient that it only applied to nominations to U.S. District Courts, allowing obstinate obstructionists to carry on a war on the courts or more specifically President Obama’s selections for the nation’s appeals courts.

And in this case, yet another woman nominee is being obstructed. Yes, Republicans and some commentators claim minority and women nominees are not being targeted, but that claim turns wobbly when we look at the lengths of time it has taken for many women and minority nominees to be confirmed as opposed to their white-male counterparts. For example, federal court nominees Mary Murgia, Jill Pryor, Arvo Mikkanen, Natasha Perdw Silas, Linda Walker and Elissa Cadish have all suffered from obstructionism, causing several of them to withdraw their nominations.  

In the case of Halligan (pictured), the general counsel for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the wait for an up-or-down confirmation vote has been ludicrous – she’s been nominated and renominated four times by the president. And an up-or-down vote on her nomination is not assured now. The obstructionists appear bent on keeping as many seats on what is considered the second most powerful court in the land open. Maybe the obstructionists hope that in four years Republicans will capture the White House and they’ll control the Senate and be able to return to packing the federal bench with right-wing jurists.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy today urged his Republican colleagues to dump the filibuster and give Halligan an up-or-down vote, noting that the D.C. appeals court hears some of the nation’s most pressing constitutional matters, especially on separation of powers and national security concerns and that the court has longstanding vacancies that need to be filled. (A court, regardless of what a right-wing blogger might utter, does need a full bench of active judges to adequately and efficiently function.)

Press Secretary Jay Carney also weighed in during the March 5 press briefing, noting the D.C. appeals court’s caseload has swelled because of the vacancies. “In fact,” Carney said, “the court has never been this understaffed in its history and the caseload has increased almost 15 percent since 2011. (In a column for The Washington Post, retired U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Judge Patricia M. Wald, explains the constraints the vacancies have placed on the court’s active judges.)


Leahy decried the delaying tactics and prasied Halligan's qualifications to serve.

“Caitlin Halligan is a highly regarded appellate advocate with the kind of impeccable credentials in both public service and private practice that make her unquestionably qualified to serve on the D.C. Circuit,” Leahy said. “The ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has reviewed her nomination and unanimously found her well qualified.”

Republicans, however, have launched typical tropes against Halligan, also an adjunct law professor at Columbia Law School, such as she’s “extreme” on constitutional concerns, and a threat to gun enthusiasts.

Her supporters counter that Republican obstructionists are grasping at straws to block yet another qualified women to a seat on the federal bench.

When Republicans blocked Halligan’s nomination in 2011, the National Women’s Law Center noted that Halligan’s confirmation would not only fill a vacancy on the appeals court but would also bolster the diversity on the court “by adding only the sixth female judge in this court’s 118-year history.”

Indeed if Halligan were confirmed it would be historic. For the White House Blog, Kathryn Ruemmler writes that if “Halligan were confirmed, half the judges on the D.C. Circuit would be women – a historic milestone, as the first time a federal appellate court has had the same number of men and women.”

Diversifying the federal bench and filling vacancies that have hovered above 80 for a long, long time are obviously not a priority for Senate Republicans. They have quickly forgotten the 2012 elections and returned to form. The obstructionists’ agenda has become increasingly radical -- block as much policy supported by the Obama administration as possible, regardless of the hopes and desires of the electorate, including the president’s attempts to fill court vacancies.

Hobbled courts harm the American people who find them increasingly inaccessible or justice to difficult or expensive to pursue. But Senate obstructionists are beholden to a base that loathes government and the president. Until and if some moderation sets-in, it appears likely the battle over judicial nominations will continue to be unnecessarily divisive and harmful.