A historic nomination by President Obama is being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee: Diane Humetewa is poised to become the first Native American woman on the federal judiciary. Humetewa is a highly qualified nominee with bipartisan support. She was nominated by President Obama with Senator McCain ’s recommendation to serve on the federal judiciary and was previously appointed by President Bush as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had Humetewa’s confirmation hearing on January 29, and her committee vote has been scheduled for this Thursday, February 13. But there is already a growing line of nominees stalled on the Senate floor unable to get a confirmation vote. On January 29, 29 nominees were stalled, and by February 6 the waiting list grew to 32 nominees who are stuck at Senate floor step in the confirmation process. Humetewa and her five fellow Arizona nominees will be added to the end of this already unacceptably long line.
In the meantime, Arizona needs qualified judges like Humetewa to fill its six federal judicial vacancies.
If Diane Humetewa is confirmed, she will be the:
First Native American woman to serve as a judge in a federal court;
Third Native American to be a federal judge; and
Only Native American in active service on the federal bench.
Diversity on the federal bench is always important, and Indian legal advocates and tribal leaders have emphasized the need for federal judges who understand Indian Law in particular.
Many Americans know little more about the complexities of Indian tribal laws—and their unique relationship to state and federal laws. Indian sovereign authority, recognized by federal law, extends to the Indian tribal courts that adjudicate Indian affairs-related matters. Some law firms have a specialized practice area in Indian law. Some law schools, such as Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law where Humetewa is a professor, have an Indian legal program “to promote an understanding of the differences between the legal systems of Indian Nations and those of the state and federal governments.”
“Indian legal experts have long said that tribal law gets shortchanged in the federal legal arena because so few judges are well-versed and experienced in it. This is one reason why federal cases are often harmful to tribal and Indian interests, according to many tribal analyses,” reported Indian Country Today after Republican Senators blocked Avro Mikkanen, a Native American previously nominated by President Obama to the federal judiciary.
The National Congress of American Indians applauded the nomination of Diane Humetewa and particularly noted her firsthand experience in federal Indian law. Humetewa’s Indian law background includes her work as an attorney on the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee and an Appellate Judge on the Hopi Appellate Court.
This is an important nomination for which President Obama—and all Americans—should be proud. The Judiciary Committee should act expeditiously on this opportunity to make this federal judicial nomination a historic confirmation. That means that Republicans should not demand a needless delay in the committee vote as they have done in all but five cases since Obama became president. It also means the full Senate should finally be allowed to hold confirmation votes on the 32 nominees ahead of Humetewa and her fellow Arizonans.
On January 13, the Senate confirmed Judge Robert Wilkins to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. So far, despite a growing backlog of judicial nominees, he is the only judge to have been confirmed this year.
There are currently 96 vacancies in federal courts across the country. Thirty-nine of them have been officially designated “judicial emergencies” by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, indicating that there are too few judges available to handle the court’s workload. This isn’t a built-in feature of the judicial system. In fact, the Senate could cut the judicial vacancy rate by one third today.
There are 32 federal judicial nominees who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee and are waiting for Senate confirmation votes – enough nominees to fill one-third of the country’s judicial vacancies and reduce the number of judicial emergencies by a quarter. All but three nominees cleared the Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan support, most unanimously. The Senate could confirm all 32 in an afternoon if Republicans would agree to hold simple yes-or-no confirmation votes on their nominations. They could even confirm all 32 in less than five minutes by holding a unanimous consent vote.
But Senate Republicans still seem to be uninterested in confirming nominees to carry out the business of the nation’s courts, even in the many cases where nominees have been recommended and supported by Republican senators.
Since the Senate was forced to change the rules of the filibuster in response to Republican intransigence, the GOP has retaliated by obstructing nominations in other ways. One of these has been demanding that each confirmation vote take the maximum amount of time possible: Senate rules allow for “post-cloture debate” after a filibuster has been broken – 30 hours of floor time for appeals court nominees and two hours for district court nominees. If Republicans forced the Senate to take the maximum amount of time on all 32 nominees currently waiting for votes, it would take the Senate 204 hours to clear the backlog.
Those 204 hours would add up to five weeks of full-time work: five weeks in which the Senate wouldn’t be able to do anything else – not immigration reform, not a debt ceiling deal, not an update to the Voting Rights Act.
The Senate could use five weeks of its time this year to confirm judicial nominees. Or, Senate Republicans could agree to confirm all 32 nominees in five minutes, cut the number of judicial vacancies by a third, and move on to other business.
PFAW has launched a petition to urge Senators to address the judicial nominations crisis and stop the obstruction of judicial nominees .
Earlier this month, the White House returned to the Senate 54 federal judicial nominees who Senate Republicans had refused to vote on in the previous year. But one nominee was conspicuously absent from that list: Judge William Thomas, a Florida state judge who had been nominated to sit on a federal trial court.
At first, Thomas’ nomination seemed like a slam dunk: He is an experienced, respected judge who was nominated in 2012 with the support of both of Florida’s senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio. He also would have been the first openly gay black man to sit on the federal bench.
Then, mysteriously, Rubio changed his mind. Taking advantage of a Senate Judiciary Committee policy that allows any senator to block a committee hearing on any nominee from his or her home state, Rubio unilaterally refused to allow a hearing on Thomas. For months, the senator refused to explain why he was blocking Thomas’ nomination, until finally this summer a spokesperson cited “questions about [the nominee’s] judicial temperament and his willingness to impose appropriate criminal sentences.”
Rubio’s office provided two examples of instances in which they believed that Thomas didn’t impose “appropriate criminal sentences.” In both cases, Thomas imposed the highest sentence sought by the prosecution; in both cases, prosecutors praised his handling of the trials. Rubio's staff also claimed that in one of those cases, a grisly murder trial, Thomas “broke down in tears” when sentencing the defendant to death; news reports make clear that the judge's tears came when he was describing the brutal crime. As Chris Hayes put it, none of these complaints “pass the smell test.”
Now, finally, Rubio himself has gone on the record for the first time about why he blocked Thomas’ nomination. In an interview with Michael Putney, political reporter for the Miami-area Local 10 news, Rubio, looking visibly uncomfortable, repeats his office’s talking points about the two criminal cases they allege Judge Thomas imposed insufficiently harsh sentences in. “We are looking for judges that can accurately apply the law, particularly at the federal level,” Rubio said, never quite explaining how Thomas failed to do that.
This isn’t the first time that Rubio has blocked a Florida judicial nominee for less than convincing reasons. Rubio similarly changed his mind about Florida nominee Brian Davis – who is also African-American – at the behest of Sen. Chuck Grassley . Under pressure from local activists, Rubio eventually changed his mind again and allowed Davis’ nomination to go forward.
As Hayes said, it seems like the most likely explanation is that Judge Thomas was merely an “innocent bystander” in Rubio’s desperate race to win back the right-wing support he lost during his short-lived advocacy for immigration reform – an effort that so far isn’t panning out so well.
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 – President Obama today re-nominated 54 federal judicial nominees whose nominations had been sent back to the White House at the end of last year due to Republican obstruction. At the end of last year, Senate Republicans refused to hold over the president’s nominees, sending all but one – D.C. Circuit nominee Robert Wilkins – back to the White House.
Disappointingly, one nominee who had been stalled by GOP obstruction was not renominated: William Thomas of Florida, whom Sen. Marco Rubio singlehandedly blocked from a hearing for over a year.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way, issued the following statement:
It is encouraging that the White House has taken the earliest possible opportunity to put these 54 nominees back on the path to Senate confirmation. This is an especially urgent matter given that 22 of these nominees would fill officially-designated judicial emergencies.
It is stunning that this many nominees were been sent back to the president at the end of the year. Most of those who are now starting the confirmation process all over again could have easily received confirmation votes last year if not for Republican obstruction. Nine were waiting for Senate votes when their nominations were sent back and 24 were stalled in the Judiciary Committee by Republican senators abusing the committee’s rules and practices.
While we are pleased that the White House is working for the expeditious confirmation of these 54 nominees, it is disappointing that Judge William Thomas of Florida has been left off the list. Judge Thomas is an eminently qualified nominee and would make history as the first openly gay African-American man to become a federal judge. Yet a campaign of obstruction from Sen. Marco Rubio has kept Judge Thomas from even receiving a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, and has now succeeded in torpedoing his nomination entirely.
The president has also renominated a controversial slate of nominees from Georgia. In a state that is nearly one-third African American, just one of the president’s six nominees is a person of color, and questions have been raised about some of the nominees’ records on voting and civil rights.
Republicans have indicated that they will fight the president’s nominees whoever they are; that makes it all the more important that the best possible nominees are put forward.