The Senate GOP has already made it more difficult than ever for qualified judicial nominees to make it through the confirmation process. Yesterday, they made it even harder.
Caitlin Halligan, President Obama’s nominee to fill the seat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that Chief Justice John Roberts vacated when he was appointed to the Supreme Court six years ago, is widely regarded as well-qualified and moderate. She has the support of a large and bipartisan group of prominent attorneys and law enforcement officials. Her legal views are decidedly non-controversial and middle of the road.
Yet Halligan yesterday became another victim of the Senate GOP’s strategy to defeat the Obama administration by preventing anything at all from getting done. When Democrats tried to get her a simple up-or-down confirmation vote, all but one Republican voted to keep up the filibuster against her. Why? Because, they said, the D.C. Circuit could keep on functioning with one third of its seats empty.
Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic summed up the implications:
If it were possible to strip the political varnish from the judicial nomination process, if we reduced the dark art down to its elemental tones, what we would see is both simple and maddening. 1) Our nation doesn’t have enough federal judges working on cases. 2) The result is a growing backlog in the administration of justice that impacts the lives of millions of Americans. 3) There is a limited supply of capable, honest lawyers who are willing to take a pay cut, not to mention endure the background checks, to work as life-tenured jurists. 4) The Senate is unwilling to confirm dozens of these dedicated people out of partisan spite.
The Senate GOP’s ongoing efforts to keep the judiciary from functioning properly are both a powerful deterrent to talented lawyers who are recruited for the bench, and set a dangerous precedent for future Senate confirmation battles.
In 2005, the Senate’s “Gang of 14” cut a deal agreeing to only filibuster judicial nominees under “extraordinary circumstances,” which Sen. Lindsey Graham defined as “a character problem, an ethics problem, some allegation about the qualifications of the person, not an ideological bent.” Republican senators lined up to bash judicial filibusters, some even calling them unconstitutional, and expound on the importance of a functioning judiciary. Many of these, including Graham, have apparently changed their minds.
The filibuster of Halligan clearly shatters this deal. The desire to keep President Obama’s nominees off the bench is in itself not an “extraordinary circumstance.” The new standard for judicial filibusters the Senate GOP set yesterday is one that will hurt qualified nominees of this president and of the next president, whatever his or her party.