WASHINGTON – The Senate today confirmed Judge Robert Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Wilkins was one of three nominees blocked for months by Senate Republicans. The GOP admitted that they would block any and all of President Obama’s nominees to fill the three vacancies on this critically important court no matter who they were, which provoked the Senate to change its filibuster rules. Wilkins’ fellow nominees Patricia Millett and Nina Pillard were confirmed late last year.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way, responded to the vote:
“Today’s vote sends a supremely qualified and capable nominee to the nation’s second most influential court. It also puts an end to Senate Republicans’ dishonest effort to keep President Obama from filling vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, an effort that was destructive and transparently political.
“Now that the D.C. Circuit’s seats are full, it can get on with its important work for the American people. And just as importantly, if the Senate can put petty partisan fights behind it, it can get on with doing the American people's work as well, including filling the other long-vacant federal court seats across the country.”
WASHINGTON – The Senate today failed to overcome a Republican filibuster of the nomination of Judge Robert Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Only two Republican senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – voted for cloture on Wilkins’ nomination.
Republicans are also filibustering President Obama’s two other nominees to the court, Nina Pillard and Patricia Millett.
The Senate unanimously confirmed Wilkins to his current post on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2010.
Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way, said:
“Just three years ago, Senate Republicans found Robert Wilkins perfectly qualified to be a federal judge. Now, they’re filibustering his nomination to the D.C. Circuit simply because they don’t want President Obama to be able to fill that court’s vacancies.
“This is the latest example of Republicans in Congress attempting to circumvent laws they don’t like simply by obstructing the workings of government. They shut down the government in an attempt to nullify the health care law. They routinely filibuster nominees to executive agencies and departments that they don’t want to function. And now they’re going after judicial nominees simply because they don’t like the result of last year’s presidential election.
“This is unacceptable. These nominees are not going away. I hope that when they have a chance to vote again on these three nominations, reasonable Republican senators will follow the lead of Sens. Collins and Murkowski and allow yes-or-no votes.”
To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way
Date: November 12, 2013
Re: The Nullification Strategy: How Senate Republicans Abuse the Filibuster to Undermine the Courts, Executive Agencies, and American Voters
Earlier this month, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Dean of the Senate and one of the most steadfast protectors of its traditions, announced that for the first time in his decades-long Senate career he was considering supporting a change to the Senate’s filibuster rules.
Leahy’s reluctant change of heart is a sign of the extent to which Senate Republicans have abused the rules of the Senate not only to oppose legislation and nominees with whom they disagree, but to change the rules of government, using obstruction to nullify laws and agencies that they lack the electoral mandate to overturn or eliminate through legitimate means.
Senate Republicans under President Obama have turned the Constitution's command of "advice and consent" into a prerogative to obstruct and nullify -- a violation of the Constitution's spirit that ignores the will of American voters and threatens to undermine the functioning of all three branches of government.
Using what Sen. Tim Kaine has called the "decapitation strategy," Senate Republicans routinely deny confirmation votes to qualified, widely respected nominees simply because the GOP wants to cripple the agency or court to which the individual was nominated.
This strategy will reach a new low today if Senate Republicans succeed in blocking an up-or-down vote on the nomination of Nina Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as they have indicated that they intend to do.
How the Nullification Strategy Works
In June, President Obama nominated three highly qualified individuals to fill the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court. On Oct. 31, Republicans blocked a vote on the nomination of Patricia Millett. Today, they are expected to deny cloture on the nomination of Nina Pillard. And they have indicated that they will do the same to President Obama's third nominee to the court, Robert Wilkins.
Senate Republicans have made clear that they are blocking votes on these nominees simply because they do not want President Obama to be able to fill vacancies on this particular court. In fact, the Senate’s GOP leadership signaled their intention to stonewall all three nominees before they even knew who they would be – a clear sign that their obstruction has nothing to do with the nominees’ records or qualifications.
Similarly, Republicans blocked President Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, preventing the agency from achieving a quorum; in so doing, they successfully sabotaged enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act without actually amending the law. They refused for a full two years to confirm a head to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which prevented it from exercising some of its most important authorities; they admitted they had no problem with the nominee (Richard Cordray) but instead wanted to force Democrats to change the law and weaken the newly-created agency.
And of course, President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, is in the same position after Senate Republicans blocked a vote on his nomination, making him the first sitting member of Congress to be blocked from confirmation to an Administration position since before the Civil War.
Notably, a large number of the nominees who have faced politically-motivated blockades have been women and people of color. The blocked D.C. Circuit nominees are two women and an African-American man. Several months ago, Republicans blocked another woman, Caitlin Halligan, from a seat on the court, which will make Pillard the third woman this year that Republicans have blocked from the D.C. Circuit.
Why Republicans Have Targeted the D.C. Circuit
There is a reason that Senate Republicans have chosen the D.C. Circuit as an object of their obstruction: The court, which regularly reviews decisions by federal agencies on a broad range of issues important to the public at large, is currently dominated by Republican-nominated jurists who routinely undercut the ability of federal agencies to protect workers and consumers.
Although the court's eight active judges are divided evenly between Democratic and Republican nominees, five of the court’s six senior judges are Republican appointees. These senior judges sit on the three-judge panels that do most of the court’s work, and maintain a strong influence over the court. So when you draw a three-judge panel, there’s a high likelihood that it will have a conservative majority because Republican nominees outnumber Democratic ones 9-5, a nearly 2-1 ratio. In fact, 15 of the last 19 judges confirmed to the court were nominated by Republican presidents. That includes four George W. Bush nominees, three George H.W. Bush nominees, and eight Ronald Reagan nominees. By contrast, the Senate has confirmed just one of President Obama's nominees to the D.C. Circuit, Sri Srinivasan.
The conservative judges who currently dominate the D.C. Circuit have pushed an anti-regulatory, pro-corporate ideological agenda that clearly appeals to Senate Republicans. In just the past few years, Republican-nominated judges on the court have blocked EPA efforts to limit cross-state air pollution, defeated cigarette labeling requirements, and used severely flawed reasoning to declare that requiring employers to post a notice informing employees of their right to unionize violates the free speech rights of the employers. The D.C. Circuit has also aided Senate Republicans in their agenda of obstruction, voiding the president’s appointments of NRLB Members whom the president had been forced to recess-appoint after the GOP had refused to let the agency reach a quorum.
After he voted to block Millett’s nomination, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois admitted that preserving the DC Circuit’s rightward slant was the reason for his party’s obstruction. "We're worried about that court being a significant bastion for administrative law cases on Obamacare,” he told the Huffington Post.
President Obama's nominees to fill the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit are all impeccably qualified. Judge Wilkins is already a federal judge, serving on the US District Court for the District of Columbia, and has an impressive background in civil rights and financial law. Professor Pillard is a widely respected attorney who has personally argued and briefed key Supreme Court cases – including key women’s equality cases -- brought or defended by government lawyers from Republican administrations, and Republican-appointed justices often authored the majority opinions in her favor. She co-directs a universally admired nonpartisan institute that prepares attorneys to argue before the Supreme Court. Millett is one of the most respected appellate attorneys in the nation, and has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court.
Yet all three are facing filibusters simply because they were nominated by President Obama.
Stunningly, Senate Republicans have attempted to turn the tables on the president, accusing him of "court-packing" for attempting to fill congressionally-designated judicial vacancies with qualified nominees. This argument is laughably transparent: President Obama has nominated qualified individuals to seats that have been filled by all of his recent predecessors, even when the court's caseload was lower than it is today.
The Constitution mandates that the president name and the Senate fairly review nominees to federal judgeships created by Congress. President Obama has done his job by nominating three extraordinarily qualified nominees to the D.C. Circuit. But the Senate GOP is refusing to fulfill its duty of "advice and consent,” and is instead attempting to nullify the law and pretend the court has only eight seats.
This is the same strategy that House Republicans used when they shut down the federal government and threatened a default on the country’s debt in an attempt to bring down a law that had been enacted by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. Unable to achieve their preferred policies by winning elections, Republicans are attempting to nullify the results of those elections through extreme obstruction.
This abuse of the filibuster has now led even one of the Senate's most fervent institutionalists to consider eliminating the minority's ability to block nominees -- a fundamental change to an institution that less than ten years ago agreed to use the filibuster only under "extraordinary circumstances."
Senate Republicans must reconsider their nullification strategy, or risk harming not only the courts and executive agencies they are targeting, but the institution of the Senate itself.
To: Editorial boards and journalists
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way
Date: September 11, 2013
Re: On D.C. Circuit, Senate GOP Faces Choice Between Governance and Obstruction
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing today on the nomination of Judge Robert L. Wilkins, one of President Obama’s three nominees to the influential Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Wilkins, like his fellow nominees Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and Patricia Millett, is indisputably qualified. In fact, the Senate unanimously confirmed him in 2010 to his current position on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. But Wilkins’ nomination, like those of Pillard and Millett, risks being caught up in political gridlock that has nothing to do with his qualifications.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Millett’s nomination last month along party lines, with Republican senators making clear that their objections were all about politics and not about the nominee’s merits. The committee will vote on Pillard’s nomination next week.
We urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to fairly consider Wilkins and the Senate GOP to allow yes-or-no votes on all three nominees.
Another highly qualified, principled nominee
As President Obama made clear in his Rose Garden speech announcing the nominations of Wilkins, Pillard and Millett, all three are highly qualified, principled individuals who will be an enormous asset to the D.C. Circuit, frequently referred to as the second most influential court in the nation. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Judge Wilkins served for over a decade at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where he was recognized by the Legal Times as the office’s “premier advocate.” In 2002, Wilkins joined the respected law firm Venable LLP, where he oversaw complex financial industry cases and was recognized as one of Washington’s top lawyers by Washingtonian Magazine and the Legal Times.
In 1993, as a private citizen, Wilkins led one of the nation’s most influential legal battles against racial profiling. After his car was stopped and searched for drugs by Maryland state police while he was driving home from his grandfather’s funeral, Wilkins filed a lawsuit against the state. The suit revealed that the state police had directed its troopers to target African American motorists for highway drug searches. The case, Wilkins, et al. v. State of Maryland, influenced the entire country: 46 states now collect data to detect and prevent racial profiling of drivers.
Wilkins has been a leader in the effort to establish and create the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In 2000, he left his job to work full-time on the establishment of the museum, working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to establish a commission to plan the museum. The Senate later appointed Wilkins to chair the commission’s site and building committee. The museum is set to open in 2015.
In 2010, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Wilkins to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The American Bar Association has rated him Unanimously Well Qualified for the D.C. Circuit, its highest rating for judicial nominees.
Senate Republicans’ persistent obstruction
Senate Republicans have threatened to filibuster Wilkins’ nomination, along with those of fellow nominees Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and Patricia Millett, simply because they do not want President Obama to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit.
This is the most extreme manifestation yet of the Senate GOP’s campaign of delays and inaction against President Obama’s judicial nominees. Because of Republican slow-walking, President Obama’s confirmed judicial nominees have been forced to wait nearly three times as long for a yes-or-no vote from the Senate than were President George W. Bush’s nominees by this point in his presidency. During George W. Bush’s entire eight years in office, the Senate minority filibustered 18 judicial nominations; in the first five years of Obama’s presidency, there have already been 31 judicial filibusters. Many of these filibusters have had nothing to do with the nominees themselves: Nearly half of the Obama circuit court nominees who Republicans have filibustered are people they ultimately supported overwhelmingly.
The result is that more than ten percent of seats on lower federal courts are now or will soon be vacant. More than one third of current vacancies are in courts so over-extended that the Judicial Conference of the United States has declared them “judicial emergencies.”
This pattern holds true at the D.C. Circuit, where three of eleven active judgeships are vacant. The Senate has confirmed just one Obama nominee to the D.C. Circuit, in contrast to the four George W. Bush nominees, three Clinton nominees, three George H.W. Bush nominees and eight Reagan nominees.
This persistent obstruction has been detrimental to the federal court system, causing delays for individuals and businesses seeking their day in court.
But it has also delayed President Obama’s efforts to put qualified nominees with a diversity of backgrounds on the federal bench. Forty-one percent of President Obama confirmed nominees have been women, compared with just 22 percent of President Bush’s nominees. Likewise, 38 percent of President Obama’s nominees have been people of color, in contrast to just 18 percent of President Bush’s nominees.
The nominations of Wilkins, who is African American, and Millett and Pillard, who are both women, to the D.C. Circuit represent President Obama’s commitment to picking highly qualified, diverse nominees to the nation’s courts. Senate Republicans should give these nominees the respect of reviewing them on their merits, rather than using them as pawns in destructive political infighting.
Now that we’re well into President Obama’s fifth year in office, there are no prizes for guessing what the GOP’s response is to a diverse slate of nominees to the critical DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
Obstruct. Obstruct. Obstruct.
Even before they were nominated, Republican Senators were laying the groundwork to block anyone nominated to the circuit. Now that President Obama has nominated three unquestionably qualified jurists with broad support from across the ideological spectrum…Republican leaders are still intent on denying them simple yes-or-no votes.
We’ve created a simple graphic to share on Facebook to let Republicans know you’re watching how they treat this diverse set of nominees. Click here to share.
Earlier this week President Obama nominated three unquestionably qualified candidates – appellate attorney Patricia Millet, former civil rights attorney Cornelia Pillard and D.C. District Court judge Robert Wilkins – to the D.C. Circuit, the second most influential court in the country. Republicans are already fighting hard against these nominations, claiming that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t have a large enough workload to necessitate filling the vacant seats. Sen. Chuck Grassley (D-IA) even went as far as to say, “No matter how you slice it, the D.C. Circuit ranks last or almost last in nearly every category that measures workload.”
Not quite. Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post wrote an article this morning delving deeper into Sen. Grassley’s claims. Kessler wrote,
“Challenged by Grassley’s claim that the D.C. Circuit is last ‘no matter how you slice it,’ we came up with two other measures that might shed more light on the D.C. Circuit’s workload… One way to measure this is by looking at the data for ‘administrative appeals.’
In 2012, nearly 45 percent of those appeals at the D.C. Circuit involved administrative appeals concerning federal rules and regulations, which many experts say are highly complex and take more time to review. By contrast, at the other circuits, virtually all of the administrative appeals involve immigration cases. Using the data in Table B-3, we found that in the other circuits, administrative appeals that did not involve immigration matters accounted for less than 3 percent of the appeals. (In some circuits, it was less than 1 percent.)”
In other words, the D.C. Circuit is considering some of the most intricate and far-reaching cases of any court. The complexity of these types of cases make apples-to-apples comparisons with other circuits difficult.
“Another measure of the complexity of the cases are statistics on written opinions. The raw data suggest that judges on the D.C. Circuit write fewer opinions than judges on other appeals circuits. (This was one stat that Grassley staff sent us.) But Table S-3 shows that the D.C. Circuit produced a greater proportion of written, signed opinions on cases determined on the merits than most other circuits.”
Overall, the Post concludes,
“[T]he certainty in Grassley’s argument is particularly misplaced, given the unusual nature of the D.C. Circuit… you can’t just assert that one appeals filing is equal to another — or that one set of statistics is better than another. Depending on the metrics, the D.C. Circuit could very well be in first place.”
In 2005, Sen. Grassley did not seem to have these workload concerns when he voted to confirm Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown and Thomas B. Griffith to the tenth and eleventh seats on the D.C. Circuit. Yet when he and other Republicans cast those votes, the court was handling the same number of cases as it is now. As President Obama pointed out in his speech announcing the three nominees, this is an overtly political move on the part of Senate Republicans:
“When a Republican was president, 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit Court made complete sense. Now that a Democrat is president, it apparently doesn't – eight is suddenly enough.”