The Senate voted today to approve the nomination of Pamela Harris to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by a vote of 50 to 43.
Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way issued the following statement:
“Pamela Harris is exactly the kind of judge we need in our courts. She is a brilliant litigator and public servant committed to improving the quality of justice for all. There’s no question she’ll make an excellent federal judge.
“We applaud the Senate for moving forward in confirming quality nominees to the federal bench. For years, Republicans have blocked, delayed, and obstructed the confirmation of judges, doing everything in their power to slow down the process. We applaud Senator Reid and Senator Leahy for pushing through the obstruction so the Senate can hold timely confirmation votes rather than let our nation’s courtrooms sit empty.
“Americans depend on federal judges to apply the Constitution’s guarantees of fairness and equality for all people. It’s critical that the Senate continue to confirm President Obama’s qualified, fair-minded nominees without delay.”
Judicial vacancies slow down courts’ work, drive up litigation costs, cause evidence to go stale, make it harder to settle civil cases, and even pressure defendants into pleading guilty, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center. The report cites example after example of how not having enough judges erodes our nation’s system of justice. Everyone counts on having their day in court, a fundamentally American principle that is threatened by persistent vacancies. The report quotes Chief Judge William Skretny of New York’s Western District:
We don’t neglect the Seventh Amendment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.
Heavier caseloads and backlog created by vacancies also take a toll on judges, reducing the amount of time they have to spend on each case.
Chief Judge [Leonard] Davis in the Eastern District of Texas described the situation in his district as “simple math.” With more cases “you have less time to give to [an individual] case,” he explained. “It affects the quality of justice that’s being dispensed and the quantity of work you can complete,” he added.
[Judge Davis] also highlighted the impact of the Sherman vacancy on the timing of sentencing. “It’s a hardship for the litigants,” he explained. “Due to the backlog and [the] vacancy [in Sherman], we have a very high population of criminal defendants, about 200, sitting in county jails, having pled guilty and waiting for sentences. They can’t get their cases processed.” He noted that inmates are typically housed in a county jail because there are no federal facilities available, which is more costly for the government and leaves inmates with fewer work and educational opportunities. “That’s not fair to [the inmates] and adds a great deal of unnecessary cost by having to house them for so long in county jail holding facilities,” he said.
As the report makes clear, vacancies have real impacts for all citizens. This is why PFAW supports the speedy confirmation of qualified judicial nominees to federal courts. Filling judicial vacancies with quality judges will reduce backlogs and costs while allowing the judicial system to better serve all Americans. Maintaining the third branch is one of the most important constitutional functions that the Senate performs.
In an interview earlier this month with the Iowa blog Caffienated Thoughts, noted paragon of consistency Bobby Jindal lamented about “candidates who tell us one thing then go do another” on judicial nominations.
Jindal was discussing recent court decisions in favor of marriage equality, which he suggested could be grounds for recalling judges. In 2012, Jindal joined the failed effort to recall an Iowa Supreme Court justice who had joined the court’s unanimous marriage equality ruling.
The Louisiana governor spent the first half of the interview deriding the Common Core education standards — which he previously backed — as a “federal takeover of education."
The Senate today voted to approve the nomination of David Barron to First Circuit Court of Appeals by a vote of 53 to 45.
Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way issued the following statement:
“The Senate should be applauded today not just for confirming a well-qualified nominee, but for taking another important step towards addressing the persistent issue of vacancies on our nation’s circuit courts. For years, Republicans have blocked, delayed, and obstructed the confirmation of judges to our circuit courts at every opportunity. In recent months, Majority Leader Reid and the Democratic Caucus have been making real strides in processing the backlog of nominees.
“We need to continue to push hard to make sure Americans find fair-minded judges waiting for them when they turn to the federal courts to protect their rights.”
Federal district court nominee Michael Boggs of Georgia had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The hearing was his opportunity to address the many serious concerns we and others have had about his record. When he first ran for office as a state judge, he assured voters that they could know where he stood by looking at his legislative record, including his opposition to marriage equality. But judges aren’t supposed to let their personal political beliefs determine how they rule on cases. In addition, the legislative record he cited is deeply disturbing.
Unfortunately, his testimony in response to senators’ questions only deepened our concerns. So in a letter Wednesday to members of the Senate, People For the American Way expressed strong opposition to this confirmation. PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon delineated the reasoning behind the organization’s opposition to Boggs’ confirmation.
“[Boggs’] record makes clear that senators should not confirm him to a lifetime position as a United States judge,” the letter states. “…we do not believe Michael Boggs has demonstrated that he would be able to bring to his service as a lifetime judge on the federal courts the requisite impartiality necessary for such a position.”
The five page letter discusses the problems around Boggs’ ability to perform in the role of judge and his actions relating to LGBT equality, reproductive rights, and government promotion of religion. It also discusses the controversy around his support for the inclusion of Confederate imagery in the Georgia state flag, as well as his candor before the Judiciary Committee. You can read the full text of the letter here.
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.”
Tuesday afternoon, PFAW hosted a special member telebriefing on the continued GOP obstruction of judicial nominees. The briefing featured PFAW’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon. They discussed how Republicans’ obstruction has reached staggering levels, despite changes in Senate filibuster rules.
Marge gave a brief background on the issue of GOP obstruction of judicial nominations, explaining how important federal judgeships are for deciding many issues that affect everyday Americans and defining why Republicans are determined to continue obstruction confirmations of judicial nominees. Their underlying goal is to keep as many seats empty as possible so a President Cruz or Rubio can fill them with right-wing ideologues.
She addressed the current narrative that President Obama has had more confirmations at this time than Bush had, and explained that these numbers need to be put in the context of the fact that Obama has had around 70 more vacancies to fill than his predecessor. That means for Obama’s confirmation results to be seen as equivalent to those of President Bush, he would have had to have many more nominees confirmed at this point in his presidency.
Paul began a discussion of some of the choke methods Republicans are employing to block the confirmation of President Obama's nominees to the bench. Paul delineated how all too often, GOP senators do not cooperate with the White House to suggest candidates for nomination, delaying the process from the very beginning. Once nominees are made and are sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, we have seen GOP Senators delay the hearing by not submitting their blue slips, an unofficial tradition that gives home state Senators an opportunity to express their support for the nominee.
Marge explained ways in which Republicans are delaying the process once nominees are in committee, where the minority is allowed to request one-week delays. To express the magnitude of the obstruction, Marge explained how of the 270 nominees who have had a vote during President Obama's term, only 11 have had their votes held on time.
Once on the Senate floor, the situation doesn't get better as senators are able to filibuster nominees by refusing to give unanimous consent to the simple act of holding a yes-or-no confirmation vote. To offset these delays, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been forced to file for cloture. Since the rules change in November, there have been cloture votes on all the nominees, adding hours of senate time in post-cloture debates (30 hours per circuit court nominee).
Marge highlighted that if all 30 nominees on the floor were voted on today, which is possible, then the number of current vacancies would drop precipitously, down to the level at this point in George W. Bush’s presidency. It is essential that these be voted on now, and that confirmation votes for nominations coming out of committee be voted on expeditiously.
Fielding questions from PFAW members, Marge and Paul discussed particular cases of obstruction like that of William Thomas's nomination in Florida, where Senator Marco Rubio withheld his blue slip in support of the nominee-–one that he himself had recommended in the first place. Members also made the connection between the effect of big money in politics and the motivations for GOP senators to obstruct confirmations, and attempted to find ways in which everyday Americans can make their voices heard to their senators regarding the issues of obstruction in judicial nominations. Paul used the example of the DC Circuit Court fight, where with the activism from people across the country rallying together helped get all the court's vacancies filled.
Marge and Paul, along with PFAW members, emphasized how as activists, we can intervene in the fight to take back our democracy by letting Senators know that average Americans are paying attention, watching how they respond and vote on judicial nominations, and considering who may be pulling their strings. For instance, a caller in Florida wanting to influence Marco Rubio could call his office and ask him to prevent a delay in a committee vote for nominees to fill four emergency vacancies. And everyone, regardless of whether there are vacancies in their state, can call their senators and call for the quick confirmation of the large number of nominees awaiting a floor vote. She also highlighted what is at stake in this mid-term election since the officials we elect today will help confirm the judges that will decide important cases that affect average Americans. For this reason, it is important to have demographic and experiential diversity in the courts so judges making decisions understand the impact of the law on regular Americans.
Last month, the US Senate failed to invoke cloture on the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department after a right-wing smear campaign that attacked Adegbile for helping provide legal representation at the appellate level to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a convicted murderer, while working at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Every Senate Republican and seven Democrats voted to filibuster Adegbile’s nomination, effectively blocking the nomination and throwing out the window the constitutional ideal that all criminal defendants should have access to quality legal representation.
Last week, over one thousand law professors came together to publicly condemn the vote by writing a letter to the Senate where they explain the ramifications of the vote for law students, lawyers, and the legal profession as a whole. The letter – dated April 25, 2014 – states:
[W]e are deeply concerned that the vote and the rationale publicly articulated by a majority of Senators rejecting Mr. Adegbile sends a message that goes to several core values of the legal profession. These include the right to counsel, the importance of pro bono representation, and the importance of ensuring that constitutional protections are afforded to every criminal defendant regardless of the crimes for which they are accused.
As law teachers we are particularly concerned about the disquieting message conveyed to law students and graduates entering the profession who may fear that their engagement with pro bono representation of unpopular clients may imperil their future eligibility for federal government service.
…We believe that the criticism of Mr. Adegbile, based on his representation of a death row inmate, is unjust and inconsistent with the fundamental tenets of our profession. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the assistance of counsel to persons charged with crimes, and all accused defendants are entitled to zealous representation by competent counsel.
The highest calling of any lawyer is to ensure that the Constitution is applied fairly and in accordance with the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court to every defendant.
…The debate surrounding Mr. Adegbile’s confirmation also threatens to undermine the widely-recognized importance of lawyers providing pro bono representation to meet unmet legal needs. Providing representation to defendants on death row is among the most challenging, resource-intensive and critically important pro bono counsel a lawyer can provide. Lawyers engaged in this work should be commended rather than denounced for their hard-work and commitment to ensuring that the protections of the Constitution are extended even to those accused of heinous crimes.
…Finally, as every lawyer knows – including the 57 in the U.S. Senate – we are not our clients. The constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel would be turned on its head if the contrary view were advanced. Indeed, had past candidates for public office been held to the Senate’s unjust standard, our nation would have been deprived of the likes of President John Adams (who defended British soldiers charged with killing Americans in the Boston Massacre), Justice Thurgood Marshall (who defended countless black men on death row in the Jim Crow South), and Chief Justice John Roberts (who represented convicted serial killer John Errol Ferguson).
Simply put, the rule of law cannot succeed if attorneys are judged guilty by association with their clients. In rejecting a qualified nominee for public service based on conduct which reflects the best of our profession, the Senate has done a grave disservice to the legal profession and those who seek to enter it.
Upon returning from a two week recess, the Senate voted today to confirm Michelle T. Friedland to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Notably, Friedland is the 100th female judge confirmed under President Obama.
People For the American Way’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker released the following statement:
“Today’s confirmation is an important step towards addressing the judicial vacancy crisis on the federal bench, particularly in our Courts of Appeals, and it’s an important step towards building a more diverse judiciary. Confirming President Obama’s nominees makes our judicial system work better for Americans who depend on the courts. That’s doubly true in circuit courts which are frequently the courts of last resort for determining issues that affect American families every day.
“Senator Reid should be applauded for moving the confirmation process forward despite the GOP’s unrelenting campaign of obstruction. Since the beginning of President Obama’s administration, Senate Republicans have delayed votes and slowed down the process of filling judicial vacancies with qualified judges. Their campaign of obstruction has increased the backlog of vacancies waiting to be filled and weakened our judiciary.
“Today’s confirmation is a step in the right direction. Filling vacancies in our courts should not be a partisan issue—it should be about the American citizens whom these courts serve.”
The Iowa-based Religious Right group The Family Leader held a forum for Republican US Senate candidates on Friday, at which the group’s view that “God instituted government” figured heavily. In fact, nearly every candidate at the debate vowed that if they were to be elected to the Senate they would block federal judicial nominees who do not follow what they perceive as “natural law” or a “biblical view of justice.”
Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader, opened the forum by declaring, “At The Family Leader, we believe God has three institutions: It would be the church, the family, and government.”
He warned that policies such as legal abortion and marriage equality would cause God to cease blessing the country. “As we have a culture that runs further and further from God’s principles, His precepts, from God’s heart, it’s only natural consequences that we’re going to suffer,” he said.
“You cannot run away from the heart of God and expect God to bless the country," he concluded.
Several of the candidates echoed this theme during the forum. When moderator Erick Erickson, the right-wing pundit, asked the candidates what criteria they would look for in confirming federal judges, three out of four said they would demand faith in God or adherence to “natural law.”
Sam Clovis, a college professor and retired Air Force colonel, answered that he has “a very firm litmus test” on judges: “Can that judge…explain to me natural law and natural rights?”
Joni Ernst, who is currently a state senator, agreed, adding that federal judges should understand that the Constitution and all of our laws “did come from God” and that senators should “make sure that any decisions that they have made in the past are decisions that fit within that criteria.”
Former federal prosecutor Matt Whitaker argued that neither Clovis’ nor Ernst’s answer had gone “far enough.” He said that he would demand that federal judicial nominees be “people of faith” and “have a biblical view of justice.”
“As long as they have that worldview, then they’ll be a good judge,” he said. “And if they have a secular worldview, where this is all we have here on earth, then I’m going to be very concerned about how they judge.”
This all must have been very pleasing to Vander Plaats, who in 2010 orchestrated the ousting of Iowa Supreme Court justices who had ruled in favor of marriage equality, and who has repeatedly insisted that marriage equality is unconstitutional because it "goes against" the Bible and the "law of nature."