Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today that he will file petitions to end Republican filibusters of 17 federal district court nominees. The extraordinary move highlights Senate Republicans’ unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominees. During the entire 16 years that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in office, there were only two filibusters of district court nominations. If Senate Republicans don’t relent on these 17 nominees, the cloture process could tie up the Senate through early April, with each nominee taking 30 hours of floor time under Senate rules.
“It is absolutely stunning that Republicans are willing to tie up Senate business for more than 510 hours just to make things more difficult for President Obama,” said Marge Baker of People For the American Way. “For the past three years, Senate Republicans have been slow-walking judicial nominees at every step of the process, ignoring the duties they were elected to office to perform and contributing to a historic vacancy crisis in our federal courts. Ultimately, it’s the American people, who rely on fair and functioning federal courts, who pay the price for these political games.”
At this point in George W. Bush’s presidency, the average district court nominee waited 22 days between approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee and a vote from the full Senate. Under President Obama, the average wait has been more than four times as long – over three months.
Currently, about one in ten seats on the federal courts is vacant, affecting access to justice for over 160 million Americans.
The War on Women doesn't stop with reproductive rights. In a new post at Ms. Blog, People For's Marge Baker explains how GOP obstruction of judicial nominees is keeping women -- as well as people of color and gays and lesbians -- from reaching positions of power in the federal courts:
President Obama has made no secret of his goal to make the American courts look like America. Along with the effort to bring more women to the bench, roughly 36 percent of his nominees have been people of color, and he has nominated more openly lesbian and gay individuals to the federal courts than all his predecessors combined.
But the president’s effort to bring a diversity of voices to the federal courts is now facing a major roadblock. Senate Republicans have been obstructing President Obama’s judicial nominees to an unprecedented extent–usually not because of objections to the nominees themselves, but just for the sake of creating gridlock. Indeed, most of President Obama’s nominees have been approved by the Judiciary Committee with unanimous or near-unanimous bipartisan support. Nevertheless, after committee approval, Republicans in the Senate have forced the president’s nominees to wait four times longer to get a yes-or-no vote than President Bush’s nominees at the same point in his term.
As a result, about one out of ten courtrooms in the country are vacant and Americans are facing inexcusable delays as they seek their day in court. One of President Obama’s least-noticed but most long-lasting achievements–putting a qualified, diverse group of judges on our federal courts–has been put at risk.
The Senate Judiciary Committee today approved Toledo, Ohio lawyer Jeffrey Helmick to sit on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. Helmick will now join 21 other committee-approved judicial nominees who are waiting for a vote from the full Senate.
Eleven of these nominees have been waiting over three months for a simple vote. In fact, President Obama’s nominees to the federal judiciary have been forced to wait an average of 101 days after committee approval for a vote from the full Senate. At this point in George W. Bush’s presidency, the average was 24 days.
The seat Helmick has been nominated to fill has been vacant for nearly two years.
Shaun Tucker of the Ohio Coalition for Constitutional Values said, “The Senate should quickly schedule an up-or-down vote on Helmick’s nomination so that he can get to work for the people of Ohio.”
“Ohioans rely on our federal courts for fair and swift justice,” said the coalition’s chair Marie Smith. “The Senate should put the needs of Ohioans above partisan gridlock.”
People For the American Way President Michael Keegan issued the following statement in response to reports that Judge Richard Cebull, Chief U.S. District Court judge for Montana used his official court email account to send a sexist and racist “joke” email about President Obama:
“Americans expect our courts to be fair, impartial, and open to all. The trust we have in our courts relies on knowing that our judges will approach all litigants – from billion-dollar corporations to individual citizens – with fair and open minds.
“Judge Cebull, by using his official email account to promote racism, misogyny and disrespect for the office of President of the United States, has shown that he does not have the temperament necessary to fulfill his duties as judge. He should resign immediately.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid minced no words yesterday discussing the Senate GOP’s seeming indifference to Latino voters:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on Monday that GOP prejudice against Latinos is coloring everything from the immigration stance its presidential contenders are taking on the campaign trail to Senate Republicans filibustering an ambassadorship.
“Let’s talk about some of the things happening to Hispanics in the Senate,” Reid said during a call with reporters, citing past GOP filibusters of immigration-reform bills and the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador.
“What is going on here answers whether there is some prejudice here,” Reid added, referencing a prior question on whether racism played a role in what Reid and other Democrats depict as extreme anti-immigrant positions taken by GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and other GOP presidential hopefuls.
Reid said that Republican candidates are “catering to the tea party” and competing for favor from extremists in their party with their immigration stances.
It’s not just immigration policy and the Aponte nomination. Republicans in the Senate have also been filibustering Hispanic judicial nominees at an alarming rate. This practice gained national attention when Democrats were forced to break a filibuster of the nomination of Judge Adalberto Jordan to sit on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Jordan was to become the first Cuban-American to sit on the circuit that covers Florida, and had the support of Cuban-American GOP senator Marco Rubio, yet was filibustered for four months. The pointlessness of the extended filibuster was made even clearer when the Senate ultimately confirmed Jordan in an overwhelming, bipartisan vote. Writing about the Jordan filibuster, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank asked, “Does the GOP care about Latino voters?”
Senate Republicans are now stalling votes on two Hispanic nominees to the federal courts. They were both approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee, and no Republican has publicly expressed any reason to question their fitness for the bench.
President Obama has made a concerted effort to bring diversity to the federal bench – 36 percent of his nominees have been people of color and 45 percent have been women. The president, in prioritizing bringing diversity to the federal courts, has made a strong statement. The statement that the Senate GOP is making in obstructing those nominees is equally strong.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today that one of the key focuses of the Senate’s next five weeks of work will be “clearing the backlog of judicial nominees that threatens the effectiveness of our justice system.”
Reid’s announcement is important for several reasons. Because of unyielding Republican obstructionism, Senate Democrats have been unable to schedule confirmation votes on all but a few federal judicial nominees in the past several months. This situation had created a backlog of nominees waiting for Senate votes and a vacancy crisis in the federal courts, where about one in ten seats is vacant.
The reason why it’s been so hard for Democrats to schedule votes on President Obama’s judicial nominees is that the Senate GOP has in the past few years taken full advantage of all the tools of obstruction that it has available. The Senate has to have unanimous consent to schedule an up-or-down vote – something that in the past has been routinely granted to judicial nominees with strong bipartisan support. But since President Obama took office, Senate Republicans have been refusing to grant votes on nearly every nominee – even the vast majority who have little to no Republican opposition -- effectively filibustering dozens upon dozens of nominees. Only after months of delay are the votes finally allowed. Last week, Senate Democrats made it clear that they’d had enough and filed cloture to end the filibusters of two of the nominees – each of whom was subsequently confirmed in overwhelming numbers.
That’s right: Senate Republicans haven’t just been obstructing nominees who they find fault with – they’ve been obstructing everybody. President Obama’s nominees have been forced to wait an average of 100 days after committee approval just to get a yes-or-no vote from the Senate. The average wait for George W. Bush’s nominees at this point in his presidency was 24 days.
This afternoon, senators voted on the nomination of Margo K. Brodie, to the U.S. District Court for the District of Eastern New York. Although she was unopposed in the Judiciary Committee, Brodie has waited for more than four months for her nomination to be voted on. She was approved on a vote of 86 to 2.
There are now nineteen judicial nominees still waiting for a Senate vote, most of whom were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee with absolutely no opposition. Ten of them have been waiting three months or more from a vote, and ten have been nominated to fill officially-designated judicial emergencies. Fourteen of the twenty are women or people of color and one is an openly gay man.
Sen. Reid is doing the right thing in calling out Republicans on their obstructionism and ensuring that our courts continue to be fair and functioning.