Filibuster

PFAW Edit Memo: Striking Progress on Judicial Nominations

To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel
Re: Striking Progress on Judicial Nominations
Date: September 22, 2014

So far, 2014 has been a banner year for effectively pushing back against the Republican obstruction of judicial nominees that we have seen since the moment Barack Obama took office. The past few months have shown just how much progress America can make in ending the deliberate sabotage of the third branch of government so that our nation’s federal court system can do what the Founders intended it to do: Protect every person’s rights and ensure that everyone can have their day in court.

Background

Since the day that George W. Bush left office, Republicans have sought to leave as many judgeships as possible vacant for as long as possible, apparently in the hopes of maximizing the next (Republican) president’s opportunities to nominate his or her own judges and impose a right-wing ideology on America’s federal courts. With that goal they have simply blocked confirmation votes, regardless of the nominee. The result has been long backlogs in courts across the country and serious delay in providing justice for many Americans.

Under Senate rules, unanimous consent is needed to schedule a confirmation vote for a judicial nominee – something that used to be regularly granted to nominees with strong bipartisan support, as most lower court judges have had. But for the first time, Republicans under President Obama have routinely refused to allow timely votes on nearly every nominee – even the vast majority who have little or no Republican opposition – effectively but invisibly filibustering just about every one of them. Only after months of delay would Republicans finally consent to a vote. In all other cases, the only way to break the logjam has been for Democrats to file a cloture motion to end the filibuster, a burdensome and time-consuming practice, and (until recently) one requiring a supermajority of 60 votes. So for the first five years of the Obama presidency, confirmations were regularly delayed for no reason, usually out of public view, for months longer than necessary. For instance, Richard Taranto was confirmed to the Federal Circuit unanimously, but the Senate was not allowed to hold a vote until 347 days after his committee approval; Republicans never publicly explained why they would not allow him a vote earlier.

Overcoming Obstruction in 2014

This year, things have changed. By late 2013, five years of unprecedented obstruction had climaxed in a declaration by GOP senators that they would filibuster any nominee for the critically important and understaffed District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, no matter who the nominee might be, Senate Democrats concluded that the Senate and the nation would be significantly damaged if this were allowed to continue. The chamber responded to the exceptional obstruction by reforming its procedural rules. Going forward, cloture votes to end filibusters of executive and judicial nominees (with the exception of those to the Supreme Court) would require a majority of senators voting, rather than 60 votes.

Now, when Republicans refuse to consent to a vote, Majority Leader Reid files a cloture petition and sets a vote. Taking advantage of the change in Senate rules, Democrats have been able to defeat the GOP filibusters with a simple majority vote. While Republicans have not consented to even one judicial confirmation vote in 2014, they also have not been able to stop the Senate from voting on any of them. And despite the significant time that Republicans force the Senate to spend on each confirmation – drawn-out roll-call cloture votes, post-cloture time for debate of 30 hours for circuit court nominees and two hours for district court nominees (a debate that usually does not occur despite the time set aside for it), then time-consuming roll-call confirmation votes – Reid and the Democrats have persevered. Rather than wait for months longer than needed after committee approval before having a floor vote, the Senate has been able to act in a more timely – and appropriate – manner.

One of the basic and most important responsibilities of the U.S. Senate under the Constitution is to vote whether to confirm judges and keep the federal judiciary functioning. As of 2014, the Senate has no longer been blocked from doing that.

The figure below shows the dramatic drop in how long the average nominee has had to wait for a confirmation vote after approval by the Judiciary Committee as a result of the rules change:

With the Senate freed to do its job, the number of confirmation votes has grown significantly.

This has ameliorated the intentionally generated vacancy crisis that has hobbled our courts since President Obama took office. There were 54 vacancies when Obama was inaugurated in 2009. With the Senate blocked from holding timely confirmation votes, that number went to historic highs, skyrocketing to 100 by the end of the year. When the 111th Congress ended in December of 2010, Republicans blocked confirmation votes for 19 qualified nominees who had been approved by the Judiciary Committee, the overwhelming majority of whom had been approved unanimously or with almost unanimous support. As a result, 2011 opened with 95 vacancies – and with a needless bottleneck of nominations that delayed confirmation votes for all nominees down the line. With Republicans preventing the Senate from confirming even consensus nominees, it counted as a major accomplishment if the number of vacancies dipped into the low 80s, or even the 70s, as it sometimes did.

As a result, at the beginning of this year, our federal court system was suffering from 92 vacancies. And now? As of September 21, we’re down to 57 circuit and district court vacancies, just a few more than when Obama took office. This is a dramatic and long overdue drop.

Supreme Court and Circuit Courts:
Undoing the Damage of the Bush Years

Our Constitution and our laws protect our right to vote, to have a workplace free of discrimination, to get married, to make our own reproductive decisions, to hold corporations accountable when they unlawfully injure or cheat us, and to have a voice in our democracy. But those rights don’t mean anything if we don’t have effective courts – and judges – to vindicate them when they are impinged.

Knowing the important role federal courts play in shaping our laws and guaranteeing – or frustrating – our basic rights, President Bush and his supporters set out to put as many far right ideologues on the federal appellate courts as possible. The most controversial of his court nominees are busy re-making law across the land.

Most notoriously, John Roberts and Samuel Alito have joined with Reagan and Bush-41 nominees Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy to give hard-right ideologues a frequent 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. They have regularly bent the law and confounded logic in order to rule in favor of the powerful in case after the case, rewriting our Constitution and federal laws. Citizens United, Shelby County, and Hobby Lobby are just a few of the growing number of cases where they have used the federal bench as a platform to transform the country to fit their personal political ideologies, notwithstanding what the Constitution and our laws actually say.

While the Supreme Court is extremely important and well known, it only hears around 75 cases a year. Most Americans in federal courts have their cases decided at the district or circuit level. Circuit court rulings have an enormous impact on the law, and only a tiny portion of them are reconsidered at the Supreme Court. That is why George W. Bush and his partisans spent so much effort to confirm ideologues like Janice Rogers Brown, who now holds a lifetime position on the D.C. Circuit. She wrote a 2012 opinion holding that graphic warnings on cigarette packages violate the tobacco companies’ free speech rights. She joined a 2013 opinion striking down a National Labor Relations Board rule requiring employers to post workers’ legal rights, framing it as “compelled speech” indistinguishable from forcing schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance or requiring drivers to display a political message (Live Free or Die) on their license plates. She even defended the ideology of the discredited Lochner era in a 2012 concurrence, writing that courts’ deference to everyday economic and business regulations “means property is at the mercy of the pillagers.”

In contrast to ideologues like Brown, President Obama has named judges characterized by their fidelity to the Constitution and our laws, and the impact on ordinary Americans has been enormous. For instance, the full D.C. Circuit, which now has four Obama nominees among its eleven active judges, this month vacated a widely criticized panel ruling by two conservative judges striking down a key subsidies provision of the Affordable Care Act. The legal argument against the subsidies has been widely recognized as weak, with a transparently political motive. On the same day of the DC Circuit’s panel ruling, a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit had upheld the law. Obama nominee Andre Davis accurately described what the far right plaintiffs are seeking judicial allies to do:

[They want] our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear.

As that one example illustrates, the D.C. Circuit is hardly the only one of our nation’s 13 federal circuit courts that looks very different today from when Bush left office. Where there was then only one circuit with a majority of its active judges nominated by Democratic presidents, today there are nine.

Especially this year, supported by the Senate rules change, progress has been remarkable. The 113th Congress has confirmed 23 circuit court judges. One would have to go back to the 99th Congress in 1985-1986 to see that many circuit court judges confirmed during a single Congress.

The past year has seen the confirmation of nominees like Michelle Friedland (9th Circuit), Pam Harris (4th Circuit), and Nina Pillard (D.C. Circuit), jurists who understand the impact of the law on everyday Americans, who cherish our constitutional principles of equality and liberty, and who don’t see the federal courts as just another part of government that can be used to enhance corporate power.

Conclusion

If the past few months have shown us anything, it is this: Standing up to bullies works. The White House has made judicial nominations that it can be proud of, and Senate Democrats have overcome years of Republican obstruction to get these nominees confirmed. Despite the GOP’s herculean efforts to prevent President Obama from exercising the powers he was elected – and re-elected – to use, he is successfully restoring balance to the nation’s courts. For the first time, the number of courtroom vacancies is close to where it was when Obama took office, and highly qualified jurists are taking their places on our federal circuit and district courts.

And the progress isn’t over. An additional 16 judicial nominees have been fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee and are currently eligible for a floor vote – a floor vote that could have been held before the Senate left town for the elections. Several more have had hearings and should be ready for consideration by the Committee and the full Senate during the lame duck session that is scheduled to begin on November 12. And the White House just sent additional nominees to the Senate that could easily have hearings and a Committee vote during the lame duck session as well. There is absolutely no excuse for not holding confirmation votes on any of these committee-approved nominees by the end of this Congress.

During the last two years of the Obama Administration and the years that follow, we can be sure of certain things: The courts will remain critically important, and progressives will have to fight hard to protect those courts and keep them functioning effectively, with judges who won’t seek to use their positions to short-circuit our most important rights.

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GOP Blocks Paycheck Fairness Act a Fourth Time

Republican senators again filibustered the Paycheck Fairness Act yesterday, an act that would provide women with additional tools to identify and fight back against pay discrimination. This is the fourth time that Republicans have blocked this bill, despite the persistence of unequal pay for women and men doing the same work.

It’s been over 50 years since the signing of the Equal Pay Act, yet, this unconscionable practice of paying women employees less than men for doing the same job continues to this day.

In Congress, though, Republicans derided the measure as a “show vote” staged by Democrats in an election year. Sen. Mitch McConnell even claimed this bill “threatens to hurt the very people that it claims to help.” But for women working full-time and earning an average of 77 cents for every dollar men earn, this bill would give them the tools to fight back against the pay discrimination that keeps them earning less.

Women are increasingly serving as the primary breadwinners for their households, which means the discrepancy in pay harms not only women’s lives, but also their families. The Paycheck Fairness Act is the best way to start fixing that injustice. Republican senators should stop the unnecessary filibusters so that the Senate can pass this bill and move our country towards equal pay for equal work.

PFAW

PFAW Praises Senate for This Week’s Action on Judicial Confirmations

After a two week recess, the Senate has made significant progress in judicial confirmations on its first week back. This is not due to a drop in Republican obstruction, but instead to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s determination to overcome that obstruction. Only one week during President Obama’s administration has seen more judicial confirmations. Since Monday, over GOP filibuster efforts, the Senate has confirmed eight district court nominees and one circuit court nominee, while breaking the filibuster of a second circuit court nominee. Nancy L. Moritz’s nomination to the Tenth Circuit is scheduled for Monday, May 5.

Clearing so many of President Obama’s judicial nominations is a nearly unprecedented occurrence for a Senate that has been bogged down by Republican obstruction every step of the way. People For the American Way’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker released the following statement:

“This was a good week for our justice system, with nine judges confirmed to the bench. Americans saw critical advancement in confirming the circuit court nominees who have been denied a vote for months. A Ninth Circuit judge was confirmed, and the filibuster of a Tenth Circuit judge was broken. We applaud the Senate for moving forward on these confirmations, which are crucial for our justice system to run efficiently and serve everyday Americans. It is heartening to see the Senate taking this important step to strengthen our judiciary.

“Senator Reid’s efforts to prioritize this issue and clear President Obama’s judicial nominations are making an impact. Despite Senate Republicans blocking nominees and delaying votes from the beginning, Senator Reid has pushed to move these nominations forward and this week, we’ve seen that work pay off.

“We hope to continue to see the Senate working for the benefit of American citizens by giving them the fully functioning courts they deserve.”

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GOP-Created Nominees Bottleneck Grows

GOP refusal to allow any confirmation votes may force the Senate to devote weeks in needless "post-cloture debate."
PFAW

Six Ways Senate Republicans Are Still Obstructing Judicial Nominations

In recent weeks, Senate Republicans have found diverse ways to escalate their obstruction of judicial nominations.
PFAW

Senators Use PFAW Chart to Show Unprecedented Nature of GOP Obstruction

In their press conference following yesterday’s vote to change the Senate rules on filibusters, Democratic senators used a chart provided by PFAW to outline the extremity and unprecedented nature of the GOP’s obstruction of President Obama’s nominees.

chart-schumer

chart-Reid

Photos by J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press via The Washington Post

PFAW

Ponnuru Uses Discredited Arguments on DC Circuit

The simple act of making nominations to existing judicial vacancies isn't court-packing, no matter how many times you say it is.
PFAW

PFAW Calls Senate Deal 'A Big Win for Americans'

In response to media reports on an agreement worked out by Majority Leader Harry Reid and a portion of the Republican caucus, People For the American Way Vice President Marge Baker issued the following statement.

“Today’s agreement is a big win for Americans who want a government that works. Thanks to this agreement, critical positions in our government will finally be filled with appointees confirmed by the full senate. Senator Reid should be applauded for holding Republicans’ feet to the fire and standing up to the relentless GOP obstruction that has tied our government into knots.

“While I’m glad that some Republicans recognize that their party’s efforts to exploit partisan gridlock have gone too far, there’s no question that too many nominees have had to wait far too long for a simple up or down vote. It’s good news that Republicans have decided to end their years long temper tantrum on these nominees, but it’s only a first step.

“Currently, three of President Obama’s nominees to the DC Circuit are pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And although some Republicans have already signaled that all three deserve up or down votes, others are laying the groundwork to block votes not because they oppose the nominees themselves, but because they oppose the President who named them.

“In the coming months, we’ll continue to push for Senate votes on nominees and against Republican senators playing politics with our courts.”


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Sen. Hatch Misleads 'This Week' About His Role in Judicial Filibusters

On ABC News’ “This Week” yesterday, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah claimed that he takes the “principled position” of voting against filibusters of judicial nominees:

And matter of fact, I continue to vote against filibusters with regard to judicial nominations because I think it's a principled position. I actually think the president, whoever the president may be ought to have the full choice of who they put on the bench.

And unless there's just some overwhelming reason why somebody should never be on the bench.

But on many pivotal votes to break GOP filibusters of President Obama’s federal judicial nominees, Sen. Hatch hasn’t voted “against” the filibuster. Instead, he’s made a habit of voting “present” or not voting at all. Because a motion to break a filibuster requires 60 affirmative “yes” votes to succeed, not voting or voting “present” in effect supports the continuation of the filibuster.

Hatch voted “present” on efforts to break Republican filibusters of Obama judicial nominees Caitlin Halligan, Goodwin Liu, Jack McConnell and Robert Bacharach. He did not vote at all in cloture votes on nominee Andrew Hurwitz and in the second cloture vote on Halligan.

These votes allow Hatch to say he didn’t support a filibuster, while in fact voting to do just that. And he certainly didn’t take a “principled position” to vote “against” his Republican colleagues’ obstruction.

PFAW

Unprecedented GOP Obstruction Leading to Senate Showdown

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today moved to end Republican filibusters of seven of President Obama’s nominees to fill executive branch positions, including nominees for some of the agencies most despised by the GOP:  Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Tom Perez for Secretary of Labor, Gina McCarthy to head the EPA and three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.

The move presents an ultimatum for Senate Republicans: end their senseless obstruction or force Reid to change Senate rules to eliminate nominations filibusters.

In a memo this week, we laid out the statistics behind the GOP’s unprecedented obstruction of President Obama’s executive branch nominees. We found that if Republicans keep on obstructing Obama’s nominees at the current rate, they will have filibustered more executive branch nominees under Obama than under all previous presidents combined.

The Senate has had filibuster showdowns before – most notably in 2005, when a bipartisan group of senators agreed to let several extreme George W. Bush judicial nominees go through, including a number of the judges who now make up the influential D.C. Circuit's extraordinarily right-wing majority.

It was a compromise that left progressives cringing, but let Senate business move forward. But now Senate Republicans are acting like they’ve never heard the word “compromise.” According to Politico, Reid had some strong words on the situation:

In a closed-door caucus meeting Thursday, Reid began by apologizing to his colleagues for cutting bipartisan deals to avert the nuclear option, including at the beginning of this year. And the Nevada Democrat complained that he allowed votes on scores of conservative nominees under former President George W. Bush after a bipartisan coalition headed off the nuclear option in 2005. But Reid said it had been the right thing to do because Bush had won a second term in the White House.

Now, Reid argued, times have changed.

“I ate sh— on some of those nominees,” Reid told his colleagues, according to sources who were present.
 

PFAW

The Filibuster ‘False Equivalence’

Journalist Andrew Cohen, writing for the Brennan Center for Justice, explains how attempts to portray today’s Republican filibusters as routine “tit-for-tat” maneuvers are misleading:

By trying not to be partisan, at least in this area of political coverage, we journalists are in many ways becoming more partisan than we fear. James Fallows, the author and longtime correspondent at The Atlantic, has been preaching for years now about “false equivalence” in reporting about the Senate’s current gridlock. He has called out reporters and editors, producers and television hosts, headline writers and analysts, for their continuing failure to call it like it really is when it comes to these Senate votes. For example, on Wednesday, in the wake of the background check vote, which “passed” the Senate by a vote of 54-46 but effectively “failed” because of the threat of a filibuster, Fallows again explained the concept. He wrote:

Since the Democrats regained majority control of the Senate six years ago, the Republicans under Mitch McConnell have applied filibuster threats (under a variety of names) at a frequency not seen before in American history. Filibusters used to be exceptional. Now they are used as blocking tactics for nearly any significant legislation or nomination. The goal of this strategy, which maximizes minority blocking power in a way not foreseen in the Constitution, has been to make the 60-vote requirement seem routine. As part of the "making it routine" strategy, the minority keeps repeating that it takes 60 votes to "pass" a bill — and this Orwellian language-redefinition comes one step closer to fulfillment each time the press presents 60 votes as the norm for passing a law.

News consumers, in other words, are led to believe that what is happening is just “politics as usual,” tit-for-tat, part of the murky vote-counting calculus that has always been a part of the Senate’s rules. But there is now ample evidence to suggest that this tactic has fundamentally changed the way Congress works. In 2009 alone, the Brennan Center’s Diana Kasdan told me last week, “there was double the number of filibusters that occurred in the entire 20-year period from 1950-1969, when they were used repeatedly and notoriously to block civil rights legislation.”  In other words, today’s abuse of the filibuster is extraordinary. Yet Fallows gives many examples — actual headlines, probably hundreds of them over the years — in which journalists have refused or failed to properly communicate this to their audience. Without adequate context and perspective about what is happening in the Senate, the American people are hampered in how quickly they can force their elected officials to change (or, more accurately, to change their elected officials).

In fact, as we have reported here, today’s GOP has taken Senate obstruction to an extraordinary new level.

PFAW

Obama Condemns Filibuster of His DC Circuit Court Nominee

President Obama specifically cites the obstruction of the three remaining Republican members of the "Gang of 14."
PFAW

Memo: The Filibuster of Caitlin Halligan and the Future of the Courts

Senate Republicans defeated a second attempt to end the filibuster of Caitlin Halligan, President Obama’s nominee to fill one of four vacancies on the 11-seat DC Circuit Court of Appeals. The filibuster of Halligan is important for a number of reasons.

PFAW: Filibuster of Caitlin Halligan 'Destructive' and 'Politically-Motivated'

WASHINGTON – An effort to end the Republican filibuster of DC Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Caitlin Halligan fell short in a 51-41 vote in the Senate today.

Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way, issued the following statement:

“Senate Republicans have once again decided to put their own partisan interests above the will of American voters and the health of our system of justice. Caitlin Halligan is an exceptionally qualified, widely respected and unquestionably mainstream nominee. But a minority of U.S. senators, egged on by conservative activists and a party leadership with their own narrow agendas, have cherry-picked and misrepresented her record in order to keep her off the federal bench.

“Let’s call the filibuster of Halligan what it is: a politically-motivated attempt to keep President Obama’s nominee off the second highest court in the country. Four years into Obama’s presidency, more than one-third of the DC Circuit’s seats are vacant and the president has yet to have a single nominee confirmed to the court. In the meantime, the court continues to be dominated by far-right Republican-appointed judges who have pushed an extreme right-wing agenda on issues including environmental protection, workers’ rights and public health. This is not a coincidence.

“The American people have twice elected President Obama, yet a minority of U.S. senators continues to place a stranglehold on his judicial nominees. This has not only damaged our federal courts, which are facing an ongoing vacancy crisis, but has hurt the credibility of the U.S. Senate. Americans deserve better than this destructive, politically-motivated gridlock.”

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Five Reasons the Senate Should Confirm Caitlin Halligan

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he will ask the Senate to vote this week on the nomination of Caitlin Halligan, President Obama’s nominee to fill one of four vacancies on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
PFAW

Orrin Hatch Votes Present: Obstruction By Another Name

Orrin Hatch is exhibit A in the abuse of Senate rules to block President Obama’s nominees.
PFAW

Obama Highlights Judges in Response to Filibuster Deal

The president again signals the priority he places on judicial nominations during his second term.
PFAW
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