Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins signed on today as a cosponsor of a blatantly political bill meant to deny President Obama, unlike any of his predecessors, the ability to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The D.C. Circuit is the second most influential court in the country, behind the Supreme Court. It has the final word on scores of federal laws and regulations, from consumer protections to workers’ rights to environmental protections.
For more than 30 years, presidents of both parties have placed numerous judges on the D.C. Circuit:
Senate Republicans prevented President Obama from placing a single nominee on the court during his first term and the first four months of his second, despite the fact that one-third of its active judgeships were vacant. They were so eager to keep the court dominated by Republican-nominated judges that they twice filibustered President Obama’s first nominee to the court, the eminently qualified Caitlin Halligan. Yesterday, after a ten-month delay, the Senate finally confirmed an Obama nominee, Sri Srinivasan, to fill one of the court’s four vacancies. But Republicans are indicating that their cooperation will stop there.
Senate Republicans are not only vowing to block any Obama nominees to the remaining three seats on the D.C. Circuit, they are actually proposing a bill that would eliminate those three seats entirely in order to prevent President Obama from filling them.
The bill, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley and cosponsored by every other Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, just gained its first non-committee cosponsor: Sen. Collins.
The bill’s backers claim that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t have a great enough workload to justify filling the remaining three judgeships. However, Sen. Collins’ own voting record provides a perfect refutation of that argument.
Sen. Collins and her allies object to Obama’s filling the 9th, 10th and 11th seats on the D.C. Circuit. However, when George W. Bush was president, Sen. Collins had no such reservations about the need to fill the court's vacancies. In 2006, Collins voted to confirm Bush nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the 10th seat on the D.C. Circuit. In 2005, she voted to confirm Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown to the 10th seat on the court and Thomas Griffith to the 11th.
Following the Griffith confirmation, which Collins supported, the D.C. Circuit’s caseload was 119 cases per active judge. If every one of the D.C. Circuit’s 11 seats were filled today -- including the three seats that Sen. Collins wants to eliminate – the court’s caseload would be slightly higher than it was then, at 120 cases per active judge. Sen. Collins evidently thinks that what was a reasonable caseload for the court under President Bush is somehow wastefully low under President Obama.
Meanwhile, here is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse refuting Sen. Grassley’s absurd claim that President Obama is trying to “pack” the D.C. Circuit by filling its vacancies:
One of President Obama’s most important long-term achievements has been his concerted effort to bring qualified judicial nominees from a wide variety of backgrounds to the federal bench. 42 percent of President Obama’s confirmed judicial nominees have been women, compared with just 22 percent of those nominated by the second President Bush and 29 percent of those nominated President Clinton. Likewise, 46 percent of his confirmed nominees have been people of color, a dramatic change from the previous administration, in which 82 percent of federal judicial nominees were white. And President Obama has nominated more openly gay people to federal judgeships than all of his predecessors combined. (All of these numbers are available in this pdf from our friends at Alliance For Justice).
The four new judicial nominations that the White House announced last night are perfect examples of this effort to make the courts better reflect the people they serve. One, Judge Carolyn B. McHugh, who has been nominated to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, would be the first woman to sit on a federal appeals court in Utah. Pamela L. Reeves, nominated to the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Elizabeth A. Wolford, nominated to the Western District of New York, would be the first women to serve in their respective districts. And Debra M. Brown, nominated to the Northern District of Mississippi, would be the first African-American federal judge in her district and the first African-American woman to serve as an Article III judge in Mississippi.
Another important type of diversity among federal judges – one where there has been some progress but where there is still room for improvement – is diversity of professional background. Judges who have worked as public interest or legal aid attorneys bring a perspective to the bench that is different from that brought by prosecutors and litigators representing corporate clients. One example of this professional diversity is Iowa’s Jane Kelly, who was recently confirmed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals with unanimous bipartisan support from the Senate. An Associated Press profile yesterday explained the important perspective that Kelly will bring to the federal bench from her experience as a federal public defender:
The 48-year-old attorney has spent her career as a public defender representing low-income criminal defendants, a rarity in the ranks of appeals court judges who are often former prosecutors and trial judges. She'll become just the second woman in the 122-year history of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in seven states from Arkansas to the Dakotas.
Associates say she is a smart legal thinker who has zealously defended the rights of even the most publicly despised clients, including a notorious mailbox bombing suspect and the biggest white-collar criminal in Iowa history. Even prosecutors who disagreed with her in court praise Kelly, who will take the oath of office privately.
"Her story is compelling all the way around," said Debra Fitzpatrick of the University of Minnesota-based Infinity Project, which advocates for more women on the 8th Circuit. "Her credentials and her background and her career sort of set her up to be the right candidate at the right time."
A long-distance runner, Kelly's life almost ended when she went for a morning jog on the Cedar River Trail in June 2004. She was tackled and beaten by a male stranger, then dragged to a creek and left for dead. Passersby found Kelly in a pool of blood, in and out of consciousness and struggling to call for help. Speculation swirled that the attack was linked to Kelly's legal work, but no one ever was arrested.
Kelly quickly returned to representing criminal defendants after spending months in recovery. Her colleagues gave her the John Adams Award, which recognizes an Iowa lawyer's commitment to the constitutional right to criminal defense. And hundreds gathered one year later for a "Take Back the Trail" event, where Kelly jogged there again for the first time.
Kelly grew up in Newcastle, Ind., and graduated from Duke University in 1987. She earned a Fulbright scholarship to study in New Zealand before enrolling at Harvard, where she and Obama were acquaintances but not friends. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Donald Porter in South Dakota and then for Hansen.
She taught one year at University of Illinois law school before returning to Iowa as one of the first hires for the new public defender's office. She's been a fixture ever since, often representing "not the most popular person in the room," as she put it in her confirmation hearing, including drug dealers, pornographers and con artists.
Other pending nominees with public defender experience include Michael McShane (Oregon), Luis Felipe Restrepo (Pennsylvania), Jeffrey Schmehl (Pennsylvania), Rosemary Márquez (Arizona), and William Thomas (Florida).
Garrett Epps writes today in The Atlantic about how the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, still dominated by far-right George W. Bush nominees, has been instrumental in “the long, doleful transformation of the First Amendment from an individual right of conscience into a shield against business regulation.”
We've read of the violence done to the National Labor Relations Board by the D.C. Circuit's December decision in Noel Canning v. NLRB. Having read that opinion repeatedly, I believe it does violence to the Constitution as well. The D.C. Circuit last year voided a Food and Drug Administration regulation requiring graphic warning labels on cigarette labels as a violation of tobacco companies' "free speech" rights -- to me, another grave misstep. And I feel the same way about the Circuit's decision this week in National Association of Manufacturers v. NLRB. In this case, three Republican nominees held that the First Amendment's right against "compelled speech" protects employers against an NLRB regulation requiring them to post a government poster notifying workers of their rights. The decision is another step on the long, doleful transformation of the First Amendment from an individual right of conscience into a shield against business regulation.
We posted an infographic yesterday that shows just how ideologically skewed the D.C. Circuit is. George W. Bush made a concerted effort to pack the court with judges who shared his right-wing ideology (including John Roberts, who went on to be one of the top two most pro-corporate Supreme Court Justices in the past 65 years). In contrast, President Obama is the first president since Woodrow Wilson to not place a single judge on the court during his full first term.
The Huffington Post clips this exchange from yesterday’s meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting yesterday, which pretty much encapsulates the gridlock that Republicans have inflicted on the Senate during the Obama administration:
HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery summarizes the exchange between Texas Republican John Cornyn and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee:
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Cornyn was arguing for more immigration judge slots in Texas when he got called out by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) for gumming up the district court nomination process. Immigration judges are different from district court judges, but Whitehouse questioned why the Senate should add more immigration judgeships in Texas if Cornyn isn't trying to fill empty district court slots there.
"I don't see why you need additional judges when there have been multiple vacancies that have been left without nominees for years," Whitehouse said. "I have an issue with that."
Cornyn said his answer to that was "simple:" It's Obama's fault.
"The president's got to nominate somebody before the Senate can act on it," Cornyn said.
But the process for approving a new district court judge, per longstanding tradition, begins with a senator making recommendations from his or her state to the president. The president then works with that senator to get at least some of the nominees confirmed -- the idea being that those senators, regardless of party, are motivated to advocate for nominees from their states. The White House may look at other nominees on its own, but typically won't move forward without input from home state senators.
That's when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) stepped in to remind Cornyn what he already knows: that if he wants to see movement on district court nominees, he needs to make recommendations to the president.
"Based on 38 years experience here, every judgeship I've seen come through this committee during that time has followed recommendations by the senators from the state," Leahy said. "You have to have recommendations from the senators, especially since I've been chairman, because ... as the senator from Texas knows, if senators have cooperated with the White House and the White House sends somebody they disagree with ... I have not brought the person forward, even when it's been importune to do so by the White House."
Cruz tried to absolve himself of the matter altogether, saying he just got to the Senate in January.
In short, Cornyn was blaming President Obama for gridlock that Cornyn himself has created. In fact, Texas has eight current federal judicial vacancies, one dating back as far as 2008. All are on courts so overworked that they have been labeled “judicial emergencies.” Thanks to Cornyn and Cruz, not one of those vacancies has a nominee.
And in July, one more vacancy will open up in a district court seat based in Fort Worth. When it comes open, Fort Worth will be reduced to just one active federal judge for the first time in over two decades.
WASHINGTON – People For the American Way applauded the Senate’s unanimous confirmation today of Shelly Deckert Dick to be a district judge for the Middle District of Louisiana and Nelson Stephen Román to be a district judge for the Southern District of New York.
The Senate GOP needlessly delayed both nominees after they were named last year, forcing President Obama to renominate them at the beginning of this year.
“The Senate is making encouraging progress as it continues to work through the backlog of judicial nominations,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “However, they have plenty of ground to make up. That these two highly qualified, unopposed nominees have been forced to wait as long as they have for a simple yes-or-no vote is outrageous. Senate Republicans have taken obstruction to a new level, making even President Obama’s unopposed district court nominees wait an average of nearly three times as long as President Bush’s.”
Dick, who was first nominated on April 25, 2012, waited over one year for a vote from the full Senate because Louisiana Sen. David Vitter blocked her, citing the fact that it was an election year. This obstruction was a sharp departure from when President Bush was running for reelection. In 2004, everyone he nominated on or after April 25 (the date that Dick was nominated) and before Labor Day received both a committee hearing and a committee vote before Election Day. In 2008, when Democrats controlled the Senate, they scheduled hearings, committee votes, and floor votes for eleven Bush district court nominees who had been nominated closer to the election than Shelly Dick was. Most of these were nominated after the July 4 holiday, and they were all confirmed by voice vote before Election Day.
A Congressional Research Service report this week found that President Obama’s judicial nominees have faced dramatically longer wait times on the Senate floor than did nominees in previous administrations.
“The Senate must pick up the pace of confirmations to end the vacancy crisis on the federal courts. They should start by promptly holding yes-or-no votes on the eight judicial nominees currently awaiting confirmation," Baker added.
Today, the White House put forth nominees for two additional federal district court vacancies, Madeline Hughes Haikala for the Northern District of Alabama and Gregory Howard Woods for the Southern District of New York. They should be moved through the Committee as expeditiously as possible.
President Obama yesterday nominated three highly qualified candidates to federal district court judgeships in Illinois. The nominations of Colin Stirling Bruce, Sara Lee Ellis and Andrea R. Wood underscore the president’s commitment to bringing qualified, diverse candidates to the federal bench. Two of the three nominees, Ellis and Wood, are African-American women. Wood brings unique professional diversity to the bench: she currently works for the enforcement division of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which helps keep financial companies accountable to voters and consumers.
Yesterday, the Senate unanimously confirmed Iowa’s Jane Kelly to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Kelly, who currently serves as a federal public defender, becomes “only the second woman, and the first public defender, to serve in the history of the court that was established in 1891,” according to the Iowa City Gazette.
Kelly also makes history by having the quickest confirmation process of any of President Obama’s appeals court nominees so far, according to the Gazette. Kelly waited just 33 days for a confirmation vote, compared to the average 153 day wait for President Obama’s circuit court nominees (as of two weeks ago). Kelly’s quick confirmation, however, would not have been at all noteworthy at this point in George W. Bush administration, when appellate nominees waited an average of just 37 days between committee approval and Senate confirmation.
Kelly’s speedy confirmation may have something to do with the senators supporting her. Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee has been instrumental in obstructing President Obama’s judicial nominees, seemed to put aside his obstruction habits for a nominee from his own state.
Iowa Republicans are determined to remove the nine state supreme court justices who ruled unanimously in 2009 to allow same-sex marriage in the state, and they'll try just about anything. In 2010, anti-gay groups funded a successful campaign to oust three justices in retention elections. Then Iowa anti-gay leader Bob Vander Plaats called for the remaining justices to resign. When that didn't work, state Republicans then tried to impeach them. Last year, an effort to remove a fourth justice failed at the ballot box. So now Iowa Republicans are trying a different strategy, proposing to dramatically lower the salaries of the remaining judges who were involved in the marriage equality decision. The Iowa City Gazette reports:
A handful of House conservatives want to reduce the pay of Iowa Supreme Court justices involved in a 2009 decision striking down a ban on same-sex marriages as part of an effort to maintain the balance of power in state government.
“It’s our responsibility to maintain the balance of power” between the three co-equal branches of government, Rep. Tom Shaw, R-Laurens, said Tuesday.
The justices “trashed the separation of powers” with their unanimous Varnum v. Brien decision and implementation of same-sex marriage without a change in state law banning any marriages expect between one man and one woman, added Rep. Dwayne Alons, R-Hull.
Their amendment to House File 120, the judicial branch budget bill, would lower the salaries of the four justices on the seven-member court who were part of the unanimous Varnum v. Brein decision to $25,000 – the same as a state legislator.
It’s not meant to be punitive, Alons and Shaw said Tuesday.
“We’re just holding them responsible for their decision, for going beyond their bounds,” Shaw said.
“It’s not the merits of what they said in that decision,” added Alons. He’s trying to stop “an encroaching wave” of judicial activity including decisions on nude dancing and landowner liability – decisions the Legislature also is trying to correct through legislation this session.
The chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee tells Gazette “that a plan to pay justices differently based on their role in one case would be unlikely to withstand a court challenge.”
To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People For the American Way
Re: Senator Grassley's Misleading Spin on Judges
Date: April 11, 2013
Yesterday, Sen. Chuck Grassley – the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee – made a statement that, if taken on its face, would convince an uninformed listener that Senate Republicans have been cooperating with President Obama in filling judicial vacancies. However, his highly edited view of reality leaves out vital facts that Iowans need to know if they are to judge for themselves whether their representative in the Senate is being straight with them.
Sen. Grassley said:
Yesterday, the Senate confirmed yet another judicial nominee. That was the 10th judicial nominee we confirmed so far this year, including four circuit court nominees. To put that in perspective, as of today’s date in 2005, we had confirmed zero judicial nominees.
Unfortunately, Sen. Grassley left out the details of that tenth nominee, Patty Shwartz. On March 8 of last year, the Judiciary Committee concluded that she was qualified and forwarded her nomination to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to the full Senate. However, under Senate rules, the majority cannot even schedule a confirmation vote without the consent of the minority party (or a 60-senator vote to break the filibuster). For more than a year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was stymied in his efforts to schedule a fair yes-or-no confirmation vote for Shwartz. But for Republican obstruction, she would have been confirmed a year ago; that she was confirmed this year is not something Sen. Grassley should be bragging about.
Sen. Grassley also left out the details of the three other circuit court nominees whose confirmation so early in the President’s second term he cites. All three were unopposed or nearly unopposed but nevertheless blocked for months by Republicans, always without cause. They are:
• Richard Taranto (Federal Circuit) (denied a yes-or-no confirmation vote since March 29 of last year, and finally confirmed last month in a 91-0 vote)
• Robert Bacharach (10th Circuit) (filibustered since June 7 of last year, and finally confirmed in February in a 93-0 vote)
• William Kayatta (1st Circuit) (denied a vote since April of last year, and finally confirmed in February this year in an 88-12 vote)
In fact, of the ten confirmed judges this year, a full seven of them were approved by the Judiciary Committee in the previous Congress and would have been confirmed then but for Republican obstruction.
Including all these victims of partisan obstruction as examples of partisan cooperation takes gall. It also shows contempt for the American people in general and, in particular, the Iowans who Grassley was elected to serve.
His statement continued in the same misleading vein:
Those 10 nominees are on top of a near record setting 112th Congress. During the 112th Congress, we confirmed 111 of President Obama’s judicial nominees. You have to go back 20 years to find a more productive Congress (103rd).
Again, this sounds like a record that Republicans can be proud of, until you learn a key fact that Sen. Grassley is hiding: Many of those confirmed judges from the 112th Congress (2011-2012) would have been confirmed in the 111th Congress (2009-2010) but for obstruction by Sen. Grassley and his party. President Obama started the 112th Congress renominating 42 people who had been nominated in the previous Congress. Of these, 17 had been approved by the Judiciary Committee in the 111th Congress but denied a fair yes-or-no vote. Once more, Sen. Grassley is including victims of partisan obstruction as examples of partisan cooperation.
This deception relies on people not being given the full picture. It assumes that people are kept ignorant of the fact that President Obama’s nominees, regardless of their strong bipartisan support, are on average forced to wait three to four times longer after committee approval for a yes-or-no confirmation vote than was the case for George W. Bush’s nominees at the same point in his presidency: For circuit court nominees, it is 153 days (Obama) vs. 37 days, and for district court nominees, it is 101 days vs. 35 days.
We urge you to write a story about Sen. Grassley’s efforts to obscure the undeniable fact that his party has been engaged in unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominees.
In response to the reported withdrawal of DC Circuit Court of Appeals Nominee Caitlin Halligan, People For the American Way issued the following statement.
“Caitlin Halligan’s decision to withdraw her nomination is an indictment of the continued intransigence of Senate Republicans,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way. “There’s no question that Halligan was totally qualified for the position. Anyone who wants to understand how Washington is broken can look at the filibuster led by Senators Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell. Not a single Senator raised concerns about Halligan’s qualifications or her character, yet Republicans wouldn’t even allow her an up-or-down vote. This is partisanship run amok.”
Halligan, who was first nominated to the DC Circuit in May of 2010, was repeatedly blocked by Republicans—including Senators Collins, McCain and Graham, members of the so-called Gang of 14 who previously spoke out against filibustering in anything but “extraordinary circumstances.”
“There’s an obvious reason why Republicans have been so committed to blocking President Obama’s nominees to this court,” said Baker. “Republican Presidents have been hugely successful in packing the DC Circuit with extraordinarily conservative judges, and they don’t want any more jurists on the bench to dilute that ideological power. The DC Circuit has dealt significant blows to working people, environmentalists, public health activists and ordinary investors. Republicans pushing a reactionary ideology are working overtime to protect the power of the DC circuit to advance their political agenda. Senators should put the best interests of the country above partisanship and bring this obstruction to a halt.”
People For the American Way recently released a report, America’s Progress At Risk: Restoring the Balance to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, laying out the impact of the right-wing majority on the nation’s second highest court.
Chris Kang, Senior Counsel to the President, notes on the White House blog that today markes the one-year anniversary of the day Third Circuit nominee Patty Shwartz was first approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That means that Shwartz, an experienced and respected attorney, has been waiting a full year simply for an up-or-down vote from the Senate. The ABA panel that evaluates the qualifications of judicial nominees unanimous gave her its highest possible rating. Not surprisingly for someone of her caliber, she has the strong support of Democrats and Republicans alike, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Kang writes that Shwartz’s experience is sadly not unusual in a Senate that’s been hamstrung by an obstructionist Republican minority:
Unfortunately, the delay for Judge Shwartz is not unique. Last week, my colleague wrote about Judge Robert Bacharach, who was recommended to the White House by one of his Republican home state Senators, but waited 263 days for a floor vote before being confirmed 93-0. And on Monday – after 347 days of delay -- the Senate will consider the nomination of Richard Taranto to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Overall, President Obama’s judicial nominees wait an average of 117 days on the Senate floor for a vote -- more than three times longer than President Bush’s judicial nominees, who waited an average of only 34 days. The Senate must promote the administration of justice by returning to the prompt consideration of judicial nominations. It should consider Judge Shwartz’s nomination without further delay, as well as the fifteen district court nominees awaiting votes. Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved five district court nominees. There is no reason they – and the others approved before them – should not be confirmed within 34 days.