To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People For the American Way
Date: March 27, 2015
Re: Senate Republicans' Failure to Confirm Obama Nominees—By the Numbers
Three months into the 114th Congress, it's a good time to take stock of how the newly-Republican Senate is doing when it comes to processing circuit and district court judicial nominations. While they are rightly being criticized for the interminable delay in voting to confirm Loretta Lynch as Attorney General, they have also abdicated responsibility for confirming judges, having confirmed a grand total of zero so far. As they head home for a two-week break, Senate Republicans have made it clear that they have no interest in governing responsibly.
A useful basis of comparison is George W. Bush’s final two years in office, when his judicial nominees were considered by a newly-Democratic Senate. In 2007, the Judiciary Committee under Chairman Patrick Leahy hit the ground running. There were numerous nominees from the previous Congress approved by the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee but left unconfirmed at the end of 2006. Rather than force them into new hearings for the benefit of the new committee members, Chairman Leahy arranged for quick votes instead. The Committee also processed several first-time nominees. As a result, by end of March 2007, the Senate had confirmed 15 new judges.
The Senate ended up confirming a total of 68 circuit and district court judges during that two-year period. The chart below shows how today’s Republican-controlled Senate compares to the Democratic-controlled Senate of Bush’s last two years, and the pace of confirmations they will be compared to this year and next.
Another way of contrasting how seriously the Democrats took their job in 2007-2008 vs. the attitude of Republicans today is to track the number of vacancies. Judicial vacancies open regularly and predictably, since judges usually announce their intent to retire or go into semi-retirement up to a year in advance. Just to keep the number of vacancies even requires that several new judges be confirmed each month.
At the beginning of 2007, there were 56 circuit and district court vacancies. Throughout the next two years, the number of vacancies generally remained at 50 or fewer, getting as low as 34 in the early fall of 2008. Because an unusually high number of vacancies opened up after Election Day, that number had climbed back to 55 by Inauguration Day, but even with that increase, the number of vacancies ended up at about what it had been two years earlier.
Today, in stark contrast, the number of vacancies is climbing steadily, from 40 at the beginning of the year to 51 today.
We see the same thing with judicial emergencies, which have skyrocketed from 12 at the beginning of the year to 23 today. As the chart below shows, Democrats in the Senate during Bush’s last two years did not allow the number of judicial emergencies to increase like that, and in fact the number generally remained steady or decreased during most of the two-year time.
Majority Leader McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Grassley have their work cut out for them if they want to reduce the number of judicial vacancies and emergencies. It should not be difficult to do, if they take governance seriously.
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.
Tuesday afternoon, PFAW hosted a special member telebriefing on the continued GOP obstruction of judicial nominees. The briefing featured PFAW’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon. They discussed how Republicans’ obstruction has reached staggering levels, despite changes in Senate filibuster rules.
Marge gave a brief background on the issue of GOP obstruction of judicial nominations, explaining how important federal judgeships are for deciding many issues that affect everyday Americans and defining why Republicans are determined to continue obstruction confirmations of judicial nominees. Their underlying goal is to keep as many seats empty as possible so a President Cruz or Rubio can fill them with right-wing ideologues.
She addressed the current narrative that President Obama has had more confirmations at this time than Bush had, and explained that these numbers need to be put in the context of the fact that Obama has had around 70 more vacancies to fill than his predecessor. That means for Obama’s confirmation results to be seen as equivalent to those of President Bush, he would have had to have many more nominees confirmed at this point in his presidency.
Paul began a discussion of some of the choke methods Republicans are employing to block the confirmation of President Obama's nominees to the bench. Paul delineated how all too often, GOP senators do not cooperate with the White House to suggest candidates for nomination, delaying the process from the very beginning. Once nominees are made and are sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, we have seen GOP Senators delay the hearing by not submitting their blue slips, an unofficial tradition that gives home state Senators an opportunity to express their support for the nominee.
Marge explained ways in which Republicans are delaying the process once nominees are in committee, where the minority is allowed to request one-week delays. To express the magnitude of the obstruction, Marge explained how of the 270 nominees who have had a vote during President Obama's term, only 11 have had their votes held on time.
Once on the Senate floor, the situation doesn't get better as senators are able to filibuster nominees by refusing to give unanimous consent to the simple act of holding a yes-or-no confirmation vote. To offset these delays, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been forced to file for cloture. Since the rules change in November, there have been cloture votes on all the nominees, adding hours of senate time in post-cloture debates (30 hours per circuit court nominee).
Marge highlighted that if all 30 nominees on the floor were voted on today, which is possible, then the number of current vacancies would drop precipitously, down to the level at this point in George W. Bush’s presidency. It is essential that these be voted on now, and that confirmation votes for nominations coming out of committee be voted on expeditiously.
Fielding questions from PFAW members, Marge and Paul discussed particular cases of obstruction like that of William Thomas's nomination in Florida, where Senator Marco Rubio withheld his blue slip in support of the nominee-–one that he himself had recommended in the first place. Members also made the connection between the effect of big money in politics and the motivations for GOP senators to obstruct confirmations, and attempted to find ways in which everyday Americans can make their voices heard to their senators regarding the issues of obstruction in judicial nominations. Paul used the example of the DC Circuit Court fight, where with the activism from people across the country rallying together helped get all the court's vacancies filled.
Marge and Paul, along with PFAW members, emphasized how as activists, we can intervene in the fight to take back our democracy by letting Senators know that average Americans are paying attention, watching how they respond and vote on judicial nominations, and considering who may be pulling their strings. For instance, a caller in Florida wanting to influence Marco Rubio could call his office and ask him to prevent a delay in a committee vote for nominees to fill four emergency vacancies. And everyone, regardless of whether there are vacancies in their state, can call their senators and call for the quick confirmation of the large number of nominees awaiting a floor vote. She also highlighted what is at stake in this mid-term election since the officials we elect today will help confirm the judges that will decide important cases that affect average Americans. For this reason, it is important to have demographic and experiential diversity in the courts so judges making decisions understand the impact of the law on regular Americans.
To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way
Date: April 11, 2014
Re: Judicial Confirmations Under Bush and Obama — By the Numbers
In recent days, Republicans have made much over the fact that President Obama has had more judicial nominees confirmed than George W. Bush did in his term. That’s unquestionably true, but taken alone, that factoid conceals more than it illuminates about the GOP's unprecedented campaign to obstruct the confirmation of President Obama's judges.
Most importantly, President Obama has been faced with significantly more judicial vacancies than had President Bush. So far, 270 vacancies have arisen since January of 2009. During the same period in the Bush administration, only 202 vacancies appeared. While President Bush had more than filled the vacancies which arose during his presidency, President Obama hasn’t been allowed even to keep pace with vacancies as they arise.
In order to fill those vacancies, President Obama has faced unprecedented obstruction of his nominees, including a record number of filibusters. In fact, more of his nominees to the lower federal courts have been subjected to cloture votes (35) than the nominees of every previous president, combined.
Before they're confirmed President Obama's nominees have been forced to wait much longer for votes after being approved by the Judiciary Committee than President Bush's nominees. The wait times have become so extreme, that President Obama's district court nominees are, on average, forced to wait longer than President Bush’s circuit court nominees.
As a result, Senate Republicans have significantly reduced President Obama's ability to address the judicial vacancy crisis in the courts right now. Currently, President Obama faces significantly more judicial vacancies than President Bush faced at this point in his presidency, including more than 50% more judicial emergencies.
Currently, 31 nominations have cleared the Judiciary Committee and are pending before the Senate, including 14 nominees who would fill seats designated as judicial emergencies. There's no reason for any of these nominations to be delayed, and confirming all of them would bring the vacancy rate roughly in line with the rate we saw eight years ago.
If Republicans are interested in treating President Obama now as President Bush was treated then, they should move quickly to confirm all the nominees currently pending on the Senate floor.
This morning the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve Caitlin Halligan to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the D.C. Circuit and Patty Shwartz to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Third Circuit. The Committee also approved nine District Court nominees and two nominees for the U.S. Court of International Trade.
Since 2003 Shwartz has served as a Magistrate Judge on the New Jersey U.S. District Court and includes among her supporters New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Halligan, an accomplished appellate litigator who has practiced in front of the Supreme Court, is currently General Counsel of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and has strong support from the law enforcement community in New York and around the country. She was first nominated for the seat on the D.C. Circuit in 2010 and has faced ongoing Republican obstruction despite the Court’s pressing vacancies. The D.C. Circuit Court, the nation’s second most important court, currently has four vacancies (out of only eleven judgeships). This has serious ramifications for the caseloads for each of the remaining active judges, which have continued to rise steeply in recent years.
“The need to fill vacancies has never been more pressing,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “We are heartened that two highly qualified women have been approved by the Committee for the Circuit Courts. Halligan and Shwartz both deserve prompt votes.”
Of the thirteen judicial nominees voted on this morning, eight are women, six are minorities, and one is openly gay.
“These highly capable nominees come from diverse backgrounds,” Baker continued. “It is encouraging to see a list of judicial nominees who look like America.”
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell announced Wednesday that he will block the confirmations of federal circuit court nominees from now until after the November elections, citing what he claims is a Senate tradition sometimes called the “Thurmond Rule.” Ten percent of federal judgeships are vacant, creating caseload backlogs so large that 30 of those seats are considered “judicial emergencies.”
“Senate Republicans have once again put politics ahead of the needs of the American people,” said Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way. “Blocking the president’s well-qualified nominees seriously hampers the ability of the federal courts to serve Americans who seek justice in a court of law.
“Acting on the president’s nominations is the Senate’s responsibility to the American people. Unfortunately, politics is the GOP’s top priority, and it’s clear that Senator McConnell would prefer to keep the judiciary dangerously understaffed in hopes of someday filling those seats with a Republican president’s nominees. Because obstruction has been their strategy since losing the White House, most of the nominees caught in their trap would ordinarily have been confirmed long ago. Thanks to the GOP’s decision to shirk its responsibility by playing games, the backlog of nominees continues to grow and the American people are denied a fully functioning justice system.
“The President’s nominees awaiting confirmation are well qualified and will serve fairly and impartially. Almost all received strong bipartisan support from the Senate Judiciary Committee. There is absolutely no legitimate reason to block these confirmations, and the GOP should be ashamed to cite an indefensible tradition to justify this act.”
President Obama yesterday named two nominees for the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, Caitlin Halligan and Sri Srinivasan. People For the American Way President Michael B. Keegan issued the following statement:
“We applaud President Obama for renominating Catilin Halligan to the D.C. Circuit, the nation's second highest court. Halligan has unimpeachable qualifications and is clearly qualified for a lifetime seat on this court. In the midst of a pervasive vacancy crisis on the federal bench, it is galling that Halligan’s confirmation was blocked by the relentless partisanship of Senate Republicans last year. She would bring an impressive resume to the court, and her nomination should be taken up and approved by the Judiciary Committee, which is already well acquainted with her record, as soon as possible.
“Sri Srinivasan was also nominated by President Obama. While we are glad to have a nominee for this important circuit, we have questions, based on Srinivasan’s record, about the extent of his commitment to civil liberties, legal protections for workers and the rights of individual Americans. An expeditious hearing by the Judiciary Committee is the best way for senators – and the American people – to learn more about the nominee and we urge the prompt scheduling of those hearings to consider his positions.
“There is also a third vacancy on this extremely important court and we urge the president to act expeditiously to nominate an individual for this seat with the credentials, professional background and demonstrated record of commitment to ensuring that the rights and interests of all Americans are adequately protected.”
FOR PLANNING PURPOSES
CONTACT: Jodi Hirsh 412-391-2005 / email@example.com
Three of Pennsylvania's foremost experts on the federal courts will discuss the deepening vacancy crisis in American courts, and specifically in Pennsylvania, at an event in Philadelphia on Wednesday, June 13.
The Honorable Norma L. Shapiro, Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and Prof. Mary Frances Berry of the University of Pennsylvania will join Prof. Anita L. Allen of the University of Pennsylvania for an in-depth exploration of the factors that have led to one in ten seats on the federal courts being vacant, including seven seats in Pennsylvania. These vacancies force Pennsylvanians to face unacceptable delays as they seek their day in court.
What: Panel Discussion: The Continuing Judicial Vacancy Crisis
When: Wednesday, June 13. 2012, 4:30-6:30 p.m.
Where: University of Pennsylvania Law School 3400 Chestnut Street, Room T145, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Press contact: Jodi Hirsh, 412-391-2005 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cosponsored by the Pennsylvania Coalition for Constitutional Values, People For the American Way, the National Council of Jewish Women - Greater Philadelphia Section, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Alliance for Justice.
Yesterday, PFAW’s Marge Baker joined a distinguished panel of legal scholars, federal judges and officials representing members of congress and the White House at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, OH to discuss possible solutions to the unprecedented vacancy crisis in the federal courts. Republican obstruction in the Senate has severely impaired the important work of the federal judiciary, with serious consequences for the American people. Fortunately, the White House has signaled a renewed focus on ending the stalemate and restoring the court system’s ability to swiftly serve those who seek justice in a court of law.
• Marge Baker, Executive Vice President for Policy & Program, PFAW
• Hon. James S. Gwin, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio
• Christopher Kang, Senior Counsel to the President, Office of White House Counsel
• Jeremy Paris, Chief Counsel for Nominations and oversight, Chairman Patrick Leahy, Senate Judiciary Committee
• Michael Zubrensky, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Policy, U.S. Department of Justice
• Jonathan Adler, Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director, Center for Business Law & Regulation, Case Western Reserve University School of Law
The panel was sponsored by The Cleveland –Marshall College of Law, National Coalition of Jewish Women, Ohio Coalition of Constitutional Values, Alliance for Justice, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and People For the American Way.
In a summit at the White House yesterday with 150 grassroots and legal leaders from 27 states, Attorney General Eric Holder and White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler stressed the importance of maintaining fair and effective federal courts, and criticized Senate Republicans for creating gridlock that has left one in ten federal court seats vacant.
Holder stressed President Obama’s effort to nominated qualified and diverse nominees to the federal courts. 46 percent of the president’s confirmed judicial nominees have been women and 37 percent have been people of color, more than under any other president in history. “Our people are diverse, they are qualified and they will serve the American people well in their time on the bench,” he said.
While President Obama has nominated dozens of highly qualified, diverse Americans to the federal bench, his nominees have met with unprecedented obstruction from Senate Republicans.
“Republican obstruction and these delays on the floor aren’t happenstance. They’re strategic and they’re having a devastating impact,” Ruemmler told attendees.
Ruemmler said that the conservative movement “understands the important role courts play in all of the issues we care deeply about as a country.”
Today’s summit was a sign that progressives are beginning to care deeply about the courts as well.
“This matters. This really matters,” Holder said. “This is a key legacy for any president. It’s one of the ways that a president’s success can be measured.”
Today, representatives from People For the American Way joined with advocacy groups and concerned citizens from across the country to meet with Obama administration officials about ending the vacancy crisis in America’s federal courts.
Groups concerned about the judicial vacancy crisis issued a joint statement, which can be found here.
The White House meeting brings together 150 advocates from 27 states to discuss the vacancy crisis that is plaguing America’s federal courts. One in ten federal court seats is currently or will soon be vacant, yet Republican obstruction has caused unprecedented delays for nominees to fill those seats.
“It’s encouraging that the Obama administration is so clearly placing a priority on ending the vacancy crisis in the federal courts,” said Marge Baker of People For the American Way. “The president and Congress have a duty to work together to ensure that all Americans have access to fair and effective courts. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have too often been shirking that duty as they seek to slow even the most basic business of Congress.
“Gridlock in Washington has resulted in gridlock in the federal courts and inexcusable delays for Americans seeking justice. Today, the voices of people who are hurt by this gridlock will be heard loud and clear in Washington.”
People For the American Way released an infographic today detailing the impact of Republican obstruction of judicial nominees:
(Click image for a larger pdf version of the infographic.)
February 21, 2012
Courts play a critical role for our nation and our communities.
Federal judges are required to give priority to criminal cases over civil ones. Since the number of criminal cases has surged over the past several years – a 70% increase in the past decade – judges are forced to delay the civil cases, often for years. This means long delays for Americans seeking justice in cases involving:
Many plaintiffs are forced into inadequate settlements and small businesses are pressured to make unnecessary settlements to end the expense and uncertainty of litigation.
A Serious Vacancy Crisis is Damaging the Federal Court System
Nearly 160 million people live in circuits or districts with a courtroom vacancy that could have been filled last year, if the Republicans were not preventing votes. This is the longest period of historically high vacancy rates on the federal judiciary in the last 35 years.
There are now 20 nominees who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee who are waiting for a simple up-or-down vote from the Senate:
George W. Bush’s judicial nominees received floor votes very soon after committee approval, on average: