President Obama will end his second term with more vacancies on the federal courts than there were when he started. Today there are 99 vacancies on the federal circuit and district courts, 33 of which are for courts that are so busy that they’ve been officially designated “judicial emergencies.” This glut of vacancies is in large part due to Senate Republicans’ persistent obstruction of the president’s nominees – even the ones from their own states who they purportedly support. During President Obama’s first term, judicial nominees have had to wait on average three times as long after committee approval for a vote from the full Senate as did nominees in President George W. Bush’s first term.
But some vacancies are due to a less well-known but all too common delay at the very start of the nominations process.
Before he makes a nomination to the federal judiciary, President Obama asks senators from the state where the vacancy has occurred to present him with recommendations. It’s a way to identify nominees from any given state and to ensure home-state, often bipartisan, support for nominees. The problem is, senators from both parties have too often dragged their feet in recommending acceptable nominees, leading to often years-long vacancies in the federal courts.
These vacancies exist despite the fact that most federal judges give months, sometimes even a full year of notice before retiring or taking senior status (semi-retirement) so that a replacement can be found.
This week, senators from Colorado and New Mexico showed how the process is meant to work – and how it would work, if all senators followed their lead.
In Colorado, district court judge Wiley Daniel announced last winter that he would be leaving his seat in January 2013. Colorado senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet set up a bipartisan commission to find qualified nominees for the seat in a timely manner. They then recommended a set of finalists to the White House, which in turn nominated Raymond P. Moore on Tuesday, before the seat he would fill becomes vacant. Of the 18 future vacancies currently listed by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, Colorado is one of only two states with a nominee.
In New Mexico, Judge Bruce Black announced in June that he would be leaving the court in October, just a few short months. So New Mexico’s senators, Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman, announced their bipartisan commission that very day, leading to the president’s nomination yesterday of Kenneth John Gonzales to fill the vacancy.
There is no excuse for seats on the federal courts to be left open for years, as caseloads multiply and litigants face delays. The senators from Colorado and New Mexico showed how the front end of the judicial nominations process can be efficient and fair.
Washington, DC – At a time when there is a record vacancy crisis in the federal courts, Colorado senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet have done something unusual: they have expedited the judicial nomination process so that a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado will transfer hands without a long period of vacancy. If the Senate confirms him promptly, Raymond P. Moore will take the place of Judge Wiley Daniel soon after his seat becomes vacant in January.
People For the American Way praised Sens. Udall and Bennet for their attention to helping the president nominate a qualified jurist for the federal district court in Colorado. “Federal courts across the country are struggling to meet the needs of the American people. In many cases, it is because Senate Republicans are obstructing President Obama’s nominees. But too often, it is simply because senators are dragging their feet in recommending nominees to the president,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “Senators Udall and Bennet have shown how the process can be swift and efficient.”
Federal judges often announce planned departures from the bench many months in advance so that the process for nominating and confirming a replacement can begin early, thus minimizing the amount of time that a seat is vacant. Then, for district courts in particular, the White House seeks recommendations of potential nominees from the state’s senators. In too many states, delay on the part of senators means a significantly delayed nomination, leaving courtroom vacancies unfilled. As a result, most future vacancies become current vacancies with no replacement nominated.
That is not what happened in Colorado. Last winter, district court Judge Wiley Daniel announced that he would be taking senior status beginning in January 2013. Sens. Udall and Bennet promptly put together an 11-member bipartisan advisory commission to help identify highly qualified candidates for the vacancy, which accepted applications during the spring and submitted its recommendations to the senators. The senators then forwarded the finalists to the White House, which conducted its own review, leading to the president’s nomination yesterday of Raymond P. Moore, a longtime federal public defender.
Yesterday, the wheels have been set in motion for the Senate to begin its consideration of the nomination, before the vacancy even opens up.
“The process that Senators Udall and Bennet set in motion to nominate Moore should not be unusual,” added Baker. “Instead, it should be a model for senators across the country. It is a testament to the commitment of Sens. Bennet and Udall to making sure that no Coloradan is denied their day in court, one that I hope many of their colleagues will emulate.”