Mitch McConnell is allowing the Senate to vote on a judicial nominee later today, only the ninth such vote the majority leader has allowed this year. The long journey of New York’s Lawrence Vilardo from nomination to confirmation typifies the dramatically different ways Senate Democrats and Republicans regard our nation’s federal judicial system.
In July of 2014, Judge Richard Arcara of Buffalo announced his plans to take senior status early in 2015. Just three weeks later, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer recommended Vilardo to the White House, which thoroughly vetted him and nominated him on February 4 of this year. Especially since the last remaining active judge in Buffalo was going to be taking senior status a month later, leaving it without an active federal judge for the first time in more than half a century, needless delay would be particularly harmful. Unfortunately, although Vilardo could have been confirmed months ago, it is only today that the Senate is acting to fill the vacancy.
First, his hearing was delayed. Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley holds confirmation hearings infrequently and forces nominees to wait weeks or months longer than necessary for their hearing. In the first ten months of the year, Grassley has held only seven confirmation hearings for circuit and district court nominees, and they usually could have accommodated more nominees than Grassley allowed. So it wasn’t until early May that Vilardo had his hearing.
Next, the Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on Vilardo’s nomination on May 21. However, Grassley delayed the vote for two weeks without explanation. This actually came as no surprise, since Senate Republicans have made unexplained and unjustified delays of President Obama’s judicial nominations a routine part of the confirmation process. But after this delay, the committee approved Vilardo by unanimous voice vote on June 4, sending his unopposed nomination to the full Senate.
In the nearly five months since, the nomination has languished, as Senate Republicans have refused to schedule a vote. Schumer took to the Senate floor to formally request a vote in July, so that this and two other New York vacancies could be filled before the Senate’s extended summer recess. It only takes one senator to scuttle such a request, and Grassley took to the floor to say no. Grassley did not claim that senators needed more time to vet the nominees. Nor did he claim that there were problems with the nominees. Instead, he said the Senate should not vote on any of the New York nominees because the Senate was planning to vote in September on a Missouri nominee who had been waiting longer. He also cited the previous confirmation of many of President Obama’s judicial nominees throughout the country as an excuse, as if that were somehow a justification for denying New Yorkers effectively functioning courts even though the Senate was fully prepared to vote. Grassley's action made clear that even when everyone agrees that particular nominees are highly qualified to fill critically important positions in our nation’s judiciary, the GOP regards allowing our courts to function effectively as a major concession to the Democrats.
The same thing happened in mid-September, this time with Texas Senator John Cornyn instead of Grassley serving as the hatchet man. Cornyn claimed the Senate should delay voting on the New York nominees because Senate Democrats had held confirmation votes for several judges at the end of last year’s lame duck session – as if that were a legitimate justification. Further weakening Cornyn’s credibility, he failed to mention that three of those nominees were from Texas, and that he himself had specifically urged the Democrats to confirm them during the lame duck.
At the end of September, the president of the New York State Bar Association condemned the delays and urged the Senate to swiftly vote on Vilardo and all the other pending nominees.
Last week, McConnell allowed the Senate to confirm one of the New York nominees, Ann Donnelly. And today, he is finally allowing a vote on Vilardo.
As noted above, this is only the ninth judicial confirmation of the year. In contrast, when Democrats took over the Senate during George W. Bush’s last two years in office, they had let the Senate confirm 34 judicial nominees at this same point. So while judicial vacancies and judicial emergencies fell during 2007, both have risen significantly in 2015 due to GOP refusal to process nominations in a timely manner.
So Lawrence Vilardo’s confirmation later today is something to celebrate. But it also begs the question of why Senate Republicans are limiting today’s vote to just one nominee.