People For the American Way

Criticism Mounts for Senate GOP Obstruction of Judges

Perhaps the most vital role the United States Constitution assigns to the Senate is the vetting of federal judicial nominees.  An efficient and independent judiciary is vital to those seeking to vindicate their legal rights.  It is also vital to maintaining the separation of powers, which the Founders recognized as a cornerstone of our freedom.

Yet Republicans have done everything in their power to obstruct all of President Obama’s judicial nominees.  Since they’ve taken control of the Senate, Republicans have used their enhanced power to slow down the confirmation rate to historic lows. And by blockading a Supreme Court nominee regardless of his qualifications, they have drawn more attention recently to how they’ve been sabotaging the confirmation process for federal judges at all levels.

Today’s New York Times has a devastating editorial – The Senate’s Confirmation Shutdown – detailing the obstruction.  Beginning with the most prominent example – the refusal to allow President Obama to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, regardless of the nominee’s qualifications – the editorial sets out a powerful indictment of how the Senate GOP has used its control of the chamber to keep federal courts around the country understaffed:

 This has been enormously damaging to the district courts, which deal with hundreds of thousands of cases annually, and where backlogs drag out lawsuits and delay justice. It also harms the appeals courts, whose rulings are the final word in nearly all litigation, since the Supreme Court hears only about 75 cases a year.

 How bad has it gotten? Compare the current Senate’s abysmal record with the Democratic-led Senate that President George W. Bush faced in the last two years of his administration. By June 2008, the Senate had approved 46 of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees; they confirmed a total of 68 by September. In contrast, Mr. McConnell’s Senate has confirmed only 20 of Mr. Obama’s judges since Republicans took control in January 2015, the slowest pace since the early 1950s. Appellate judges accounted for just two of those confirmations, fewer than at any time since the 19th century.

Those twenty confirmations during the past year-and-a-half include two for the Court of International Trade.  The other 18 are for district and circuit courts, fewer than the number of post offices they’ve renamed so far this Congress.

The result is a substantial increase in the number of vacancies since the GOP took over the Senate, with the number of judicial emergencies (vacancies with overwhelming backlogs that impede access to justice) skyrocketing to 2½ times what it was at the beginning of this Congress.  The Times continues:

It would be easy to fill most of these vacancies if the Senate did its job. Currently, 37 of Mr. Obama’s nominees remain bottled up in the Senate Judiciary Committee, 30 of whom are still waiting for their hearing; 17 more have been approved by the committee but have not been scheduled for a full Senate vote. To make matters worse, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has said he will shut down the confirmation process, such as it is, before the presidential nominating conventions in July.

Not mincing words, the Times editorial calls this behavior “disgraceful and disgusting,” warning that Senate Republicans “should not be surprised if, come November, the voters choose representatives who actually do their job.”

Indeed, the message Senate Republicans are hearing from Americans is to #DoYourJob.

They could start by holding a hearing for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.  They could also stop delaying committee votes on nominees like Don Schott for the Seventh Circuit (whose vote today was delayed simply because committee Republicans could delay it).  They could hold hearings for qualified circuit court nominees like California’s Lucy Koh for the Ninth Circuit and North Dakota’s Jennifer Kelmetsrud Puhl for the Eighth Circuit, both of whom have the support of their home state senators.  Republicans could also stop blocking hearings for Indiana’s Myra Selby for the Seventh Circuit, Alabama’s Abdul Kallon for the Eleventh Circuit, Kentucky’s Lisabeth Tabor Hughes for the Sixth Circuit, and Pennsylvania’s Rebecca Haywood for the Third Circuit, all of whom are currently facing obstruction by Republican home state senators who simply want to prevent President Obama from filling these vacancies.

Whether it’s the Supreme Court, the circuit courts, or the district courts, Senate Republicans are keeping as many vacancies open for as long as possible, so that they can be filled by a President Donald Trump, whose racist comments about judicial qualifications and whose attacks on judicial independence should, in a sane party, disqualify him from being given the power to nominate judges at all.