The judicial vacancy crisis has gotten so bad in Florida that the chief judge of the Middle District is warning her colleagues that they may soon have fewer active judges than senior judges (older, semi-retired judges often with a reduced workload). Chief Judge Anne Conway told the Jacksonville chapter of the Federal Bar Association that when Judge John Antoon II takes senior status in June, the district will have 13 senior judges and 12 active judges if no changes are made.
As reported in the Jacksonville Financial News and Daily Record:
"We couldn’t do it without senior judges, but we need more active judges to handle the caseload," said Conway.
The district is one of the busier federal district courts in the nation. …
[T]he caseload per active judge in the district is more than 30 percent above the national average and 45 percent above the Judicial Conference standard of 430 new weighted cases per year.
Fortunately, President Obama has nominated two highly qualified nominees for Florida’s Middle District, each of whom is willing and eager to take their share of the workload. Unfortunately, their ability to serve the public depends on Senate Republicans, who have already blocked one nominee for months and may soon block the other, as well.
The first of these, Brian Davis, has been a judge on the state circuit court for almost 20 years. Judge Davis was also the first African American to be Florida’s chief assistant state attorney. He was recommended to the White House by both of Florida’s senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio. The ABA panel that evaluates judicial nominees unanimously awarded him its highest rating. Although the Judiciary Committee approved Davis’s nomination way back in June, Senate Republicans have blocked Democratic efforts to schedule a yes-or-no confirmation vote, just as they are doing for 18 other currently pending judicial nominees, some of whom have been waiting for a floor vote since March or April.
The second nominee is Sheri Polster Chappell, who has been a federal magistrate judge in the Middle District for almost 10 years. In that position, she has already presided over preliminary matters in exactly the kinds of cases she would hear as a judge, and in the very same court. She has also served as a state court judge. Like Davis, she was recommended to the White House by Senators Rubio and Nelson. A unanimous ABA panel found her to be qualified. Her Judiciary Committee hearing was in September, over two months ago, and the Committee has scheduled a vote on her nomination for November 29.
However, many assume that Sen. Chuck Grassley, as the ranking Republican, will demand at least a week’s delay of the vote, as he has done for more than 97% of President Obama’s nominees who the Committee has voted on. Even after the Committee approves her, GOP leaders are expected to block a vote on her nomination on the pretense that there is not enough time before year’s end, even though they had no problem in 2008 confirming ten of President George W. Bush’s judges just one day after they were approved by the Judiciary Committee.
If Republicans block votes on Davis and Chappell, they will have to be renominated in the next Congress, repeating the entire approval process that they have already gone through. This will hardly help the people of Florida. As the Middle District’s chief judge told the Jacksonville Federal Bar Association: "When confirmations don’t occur, a busy district will only become busier."