As Congress returns for the lame duck session after the midterm elections, People For the American Way hosted a member telebriefing on Monday on the critical work that needs to be completed this session to fill court vacancies. The call was kicked off by PFAW Director of Communications Drew Courtney who underscored the significant number of judicial and executive nominations the Senate faces, including President Obama’s new Attorney General nominee, Loretta Lynch.
PFAW members were joined on the call by Josh Hsu, Senior Counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who shared Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy’s commitment to moving forward on nominees through the lame duck session. He pointed out that much of the GOP obstruction of judicial nominees occurs under the public radar, but it has an enormous impact. If the judicial nominees who can be confirmed by year’s end are stalled instead, that will create a substantial and needless backlog in the next Congress that will delay judicial nominees down the line.
Hsu also gave his thoughts on how Republican control of the Senate may impact judicial nominations. Hsu pointed out that the three most recent two-term presidents all faced opposition Congresses in the final two years of their presidencies, but all continued to move forward on many nominations.
PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon emphasized the importance of local activists keeping up the momentum around judicial nominations, both during the lame duck and over the next two years. Gordon called on PFAW activists to continue contacting their senators and writing to their local papers. When senators hear from constituents on an issue or see articles written in their local newspaper, Gordon said, they pay attention. Grassroots activism is critical to making sure senators get the message on the importance of the courts, and of confirming nominees before the end of the year.
You can listen to the full audio of the telebriefing here:
This is a good day for Americans who care about our federal courts. According to press reports, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has said that Georgia federal district court nominee Mike Boggs lacks majority support on the committee and that he should withdraw. The New York Times calls the nomination "dead."
Federal judicial nominees routinely - and appropriately - assure senators that their personal feelings and political positions will play no role in their judicial decisions. But this particular nominee did exactly the opposite when running for election as a state judge in 2004. That's when then-Rep. Boggs told voters at a judicial candidates' forum, "I am proud of my record. You don't have to guess where I stand - I oppose same-sex marriages. I supported and authored the Child Protection Act to protect children from predators. I have a record that tells you exactly what I stand for."
This connection - that Boggs himself made - between how he would approach judging cases to his views as a legislator on the legal issues that would be before him as a judge, compelled the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine Boggs' legislative record.
And what a disturbing record that was: He sought to amend the state constitution to forever lock gays and lesbians out of the promise of equality and to prohibit the Georgia legislature from ever extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians. He supported anti-choice legislation and even voted for a bill amendment that would have put abortion providers' lives at risk. He voted in support of having the Confederate battle symbol incorporated into the state flag. He sought to use the power of government to promote religion, church-state separation notwithstanding.
Given his 2004 assurance that his legislative record showed how he would rule as a judge, senators could certainly presume that Boggs has a severely cramped view of constitutional Equal Protection, reproductive rights, and church-state separation. LGBT people, religious minorities, African Americans, and women could not be assured that their basic rights would be recognized and fully protected in his courtroom.
To make things worse, his efforts to explain away his record to the Judiciary Committee raised questions about his candor.
For instance, at his hearing, he assured both Senators Mazie Hirono and Chris Coons that statements he made in 2004 while expressing his opposition to marriage equality about "the dangers that we face with respect to activist judges" were views he held as a legislator, not as a judge. Yet he sounded quite different as recently as November 2011, having been a judge for nearly seven years. At that time, Boggs was promoting himself to a different audience, the Judicial Nominating Commission of Georgia, which was considering recommending to the governor his appointment as a state appeals court judge. When asked then how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal system, Boggs cited as the problem "judges who abrogated their constitutionally created authority" and "judicial decisions that have ignored and violated the basic tenets of the judiciary."
At his Senate confirmation hearings just a few years later, Sen. Coons asked Boggs to name three or four examples of cases that he'd had in mind when he expressed those concerns in 2011. Boggs admitted that as a legislator in 2004, he considered cases recognizing marriage equality as a state constitutional right as fitting this category, but didn't say what cases he'd had in mind in 2011. In her written follow-up questions, Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Boggs if he could name any decisions that he believed abrogated the judiciary's constitutionally created authority (using his words). He responded that he could not recall any cases that he had been thinking of at the time.
Yeah, right. Based on what Boggs told the state Commission, he viewed this as extremely serious, going to the very legitimacy of the courts. Yet just a few years later, even after being given additional time to think about it, he could not recall even one case that he'd had in mind. One could be forgiven for believing instead that he actually had in mind the same cases he'd referred to in 2004, and that he was telling the commissioners - and ultimately, Georgia's governor - what he thought they wanted to hear.
His efforts to explain away his votes endangering abortion providers and supporting the Confederate battle symbol were equally not believable, and apparently they were not believed by a majority of committee members. Good for them.
Boggs' disturbing record showed he was unqualified for the federal bench. Today's news shows that a majority of the Judiciary Committee agrees.
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.
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.
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.
Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, announced today that he would return to private practice. Adegbile’s confirmation was blocked earlier this year despite his extensive qualifications and his record of commitment to civil rights. People For the American Way Vice President Marge Baker issued the following statement:
“Debo Adegbile’s decision to return to private practice is a great loss for the Department of Justice and for the country. Adegbile is extraordinarily well qualified to lead the Civil Rights Division and exactly the kind of person that the President and the Senate should want in a key DOJ post. Instead, he was attacked by his opponents for taking on important issues in our justice system. In particular, Adegbile should be commended for his commitment to the principle that every criminal defendant deserves robust, competent representation. The willingness of his opponents to abandon that principle will be a shameful mark on the Senate’s history.
“While Adegbile’s decision to move on with his career is understandable, it’s still a deeply disappointing conclusion. His absence at the DOJ will be felt for years to come.”
To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People For the American Way
Date: September 15, 2014
Subject: Senate Needs to Confirm Pending Judicial Nominees
There is probably little more than a week before the Senate goes out on recess until after the election. One of the most important – and undoubtedly quickest and easiest – things it can do before then is confirm 16 judicial nominees, most of whom have overwhelming bipartisan support.
One of the most important responsibilities of the United States Senate is to maintain a functioning federal court system. District courts are the backbone of the American judicial system. They are where people turn when they feel their rights have been violated. “Having your day in court” is an essential part of the American ideal. But that ideal cannot be met if we don’t have enough judges to make it happen. Even if every vacancy in the country were filled tomorrow, it wouldn’t be enough: The Judicial Conference of the United States – the entity responsible for assessing the federal courts’ ability to effectively manage their caseloads – has urged Congress to create an additional 85 district court judgeships. So when an existing vacancy can be filled with a qualified nominee, it ought to be done with dispatch.
Right now, nominees for 16 such vacancies can be confirmed within the next few days. Seven of these were fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee and have been waiting for a floor vote since June or July. Of these seven, all but one of them advanced without any opposition. Four alone are from Georgia: nominees who have the unanimous support of the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic and Republican senators. There are no more questions to ask of these nominees, except when they will be allowed to take up their judicial responsibilities and fill empty courtrooms in Georgia, New York, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.
The remaining nine were scheduled for a committee vote last week, having had their confirmation hearings back in July. They have been nominated for judgeships in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Four of them – nearly half – would serve in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a state with so many vacancies that it alone accounts for 15% of the nation’s total, but Chairman Leahy was forced by the GOP to delay the vote. Republicans gave no reason for the delay, but they rarely do: Since President Obama took office, Republicans have exercised the right of the minority party to have a committee vote “held over” (delayed) by at least a week without cause for nearly all of his judicial nominees, part of their overall mechanism of obstruction. Fortunately, they are expected to get their overdue committee approval later this week.
There remains plenty of time to confirm all 16 nominees before the Senate goes out for its pre-election recess next week.
The fact that we are heading into an election is no reason not to hold these confirmation votes. In fact, in September of 2008, a presidential election year – and the twilight of George W. Bush’s presidency, no less – Democrats rushed several of his nominees through to make sure they got confirmed before recess (and before his presidency ended). Ten of Bush’s district court nominees were confirmed just one day after being approved by the Judiciary Committee. All ten had had their committee hearings earlier that same month – in some cases, during that same week. The confirmation votes took hardly any time at all, since all ten were considered and confirmed as a bloc by unanimous consent.
Interestingly, three of those 2008 nominees were from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where four of the current 16 nominees could be serving by next week, if given the chance.
Republicans still have a chance to demonstrate that they can prioritize the functioning of the U.S. court system over their own partisan interests. But it seems unlikely. Since last year, the GOP has insisted that no judicial nominee, despite their bipartisan support, advance on the Senate floor without time-consuming cloture votes and roll-call confirmation votes. And it isn’t just the roll-call votes that take time (although each one can take nearly an hour). Without unanimous consent to waive the chamber’s time requirements, cloture votes cannot be held until two days after cloture petitions are filed, and each confirmation vote requires at least an hour of needless “post-cloture debate” even after the filibuster is broken.
If Republicans successfully prevent votes this month, the earliest the courtrooms will see some relief will be in a potential lame duck session. That means another two month wait until clearly qualified nominees are able to take their seats in courtrooms around the country. There is simply no good reason for such delay.
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."