Early this week, the Senate is scheduled to hold cloture votes on four judicial nominees, including Timothy Brooks, nominee for the Western District of Arkansas and Pamela Reeves, nominee for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Brooks and Reeves have been waiting for confirmation votes on the Senate floor since October 31 and November 14, respectively.
As we noted earlier this month, Republicans are routinely delaying nominations on the Senate floor by requiring Democrats to invoke cloture on every single judicial nominee and then piling on hours of unneeded “post-cloture debate” for each nominee who is called up for a vote. This practice creates a weeks-long backlog of nominees awaiting votes and prevents the Senate from moving on to other business. Nominees like Brooks and Reeves could have been confirmed within minutes after they were sent to the Senate floor last year. Instead, both of these nominations were sent back to the president in early January at the end of the first session of the 113th Congress to be re-nominated. After further needless delays in Committee, the nominees were finally placed on the Senate calendar only to wait an additional two months for consideration.
After the Senate has finally worked through the backlog of nominees to get to the Arkansas and Tennessee vacancies, Republicans are throwing up additional roadblocks, forcing Senator Reid to file cloture petitions, which will further delay their consideration. These nonsensical delays of well qualified nominees undermine the public’s faith in the Senate and create hardship for those seeking justice in the courts.
Last week, in advance of a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on six Arizona district court nominees, senior legislative counsel Paul Gordon asked if Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain would be able to convince their Republican colleagues to break what has become their practice of routinely delaying nominees’ votes. Since 2009, only five of President Obama’s judicial nominees had been allowed to have their committee votes cast without delay. Gordon urged the Senators to forgo this obstruction, especially given the enormous caseload in Arizona that is impeding the operation of the Arizona district court that has 6 of its 13 seats vacant.
Yesterday, in a departure from their practice, the Committee actually voted on the nominees. 91. 5 KJAZZ reported:
“The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way called this a step toward fixing the judicial vacancy rate in Arizona, but noted that there are 28 people awaiting confirmation ahead of these nominees.”
Executive vice president Marge Baker also commented on the turn of events in an interview with Cronkite News:
“It wasn’t sustainable to keep delaying this process, and it seems that Arizona senators finally heeded reason. Arizona has had a terrible judicial vacancy rate. This is an important step towards fixing it.”
This was a relief for the state of Arizona, as well as a nice change of pace for Senate Republicans. But as a judicial vacancy crisis continues in Arizona and across the country, the work is far from over.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) responded to Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) absurd claim that this Congress has done well in confirming judicial nominees. In fact, Republicans have not consented to even one judicial confirmation vote since November. The few votes that have been held since then have been over GOP filibusters. Unfortunately, Senate rules allow them to demand hours of needless “post cloture debate” after every cloture vote, so it could take weeks and weeks of Senate floor time to get through all the nominees waiting for a simple yes-or-no vote.
Reid was quick to voice that the confirmation process has been unnecessarily delayed by GOP obstruction:
Everyone knows that we are in this situation because of Republicans slow-walking every nomination—every nomination. There is no reason, no reason whatsoever that we are having votes on cloture on these judges.
“It is a waste of the taxpayers’ time to go through the process we’ve been going through.
Reid, aware of the prolonged time they will spend clearing the backlog due to these procedural delays, promised that they will get through filing cloture on all of the nominees.
If that’s what the Republicans want us to do, then that’s what we’ll do. The American people will see this colossal waste of time that we’ve been going through.
Get ready. There’s more Republican obstruction on the way.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote on 11th Circuit nominee Robin S. Rosenbaum for this Thursday, which is an important step forward in the fight to address our judicial vacancy crisis. Fully a third of the 11th Circuit’s twelve active judgeships are currently vacant, and all four of its empty slots have been declared judicial emergencies by the Administrative Offices of U.S. Courts.
The vacancy crisis in the 11th Circuit is so bad that the court’s chief judge, Edward Carnes, issued an order in December temporarily suspending the standard rule that at least two judges on a three-judge 11th Circuit panel must be members of that court. That means that going forward, two of three judges on these panels could be visiting from someplace else, potentially outvoting the one 11th Circuit judge. It is vital that Judge Rosenbaum be confirmed in a timely manner. And that starts with a timely committee vote.
But it’s unlikely that’s enough reason for GOP Senators to drop their campaign of endless delays for judicial nominations.
That is, unless Sen. Marco Rubio or Sen. Jeff Sessions steps in.
Rosenbaum is from Florida, which gives Rubio a special responsibility to urge Republican senators on the committee not to delay the vote. It is a chance for him to prioritize his constituents over politics. Similarly, Sessions, who represents a state (Alabama) covered by the 11th Circuit, also has a unique responsibility, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, to avoid such needless delay.
Will either Rubio or Sessions step up and help move the process in a more functional direction? We’ll learn on Thursday, but if past events are a predictor of future behavior, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The Senate is scheduled to vote to end filibusters and then to confirm four federal district court nominees tonight and tomorrow morning, two for the Northern District of California, one for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and one for the District of Connecticut. All four of these nominees were thoroughly vetted and approved by unanimous voice vote by the Judiciary Committee last year. They should have and could have been confirmed months ago. (In contrast, George W. Bush’s confirmed district court noms only waited about a month on average between committee approval and confirmation.) However, because of Republican obstruction, all four nominees have waited months for a simple confirmation vote. And Senate Republicans are indicating that they won’t stop their obstruction anytime soon. In fact, it looks like they are willing to waste weeks of time in “post-cloture debate” on these and subsequent nominees.
Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer of Connecticut has been waiting for a confirmation since he was first approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 19. Judge James Maxwell Moody, Jr., of Arkansas has been waiting since November 14. The two nominees from Northern California, Judge James Donato and Judge Beth Labson Freeman, have both been waiting since October 31st.
This frustratingly slow process is the result of layers of delaying tactics by GOP senators. Republicans refused to hold votes on these nominees for months, and now that they are being called on their obstructionism through filibuster-ending cloture votes, they’re making the votes take as long as possible by demanding that each take hours of “post-cloture debate.” This is especially ridiculous for nominees whom the Republicans actually support. Not only is this delaying confirmation of judges in these particular states; it’s also delaying nominees in other states waiting in line for their turn, including many for posts that have been deemed “judicial emergencies.” This delaying tactic from Republicans not only slows what should be a simple process, it deprives these states’ constituents the fully functioning justice system they deserve.
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.