republican obstruction

PFAW Edit Memo: Striking Progress on Judicial Nominations

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.

Background

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.

Conclusion

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.

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GOP Forces Cloture Petition on 100th Obama Judicial Nominee

Just imagine the damage to our courts if Republicans control the Senate during President Obama's last two years.
PFAW

PFAW Applauds Confirmation of Pamela Harris

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.”

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Barney Frank: This Year’s Midterm Elections Define Our Courts

In an op-ed printed in the Portland Press Herald this weekend, retired congressman Barney Frank offers a sharp critique of the far right Supreme Court under John Roberts. Explicitly noting the importance of the Court in defining law that affects all citizens, Frank makes clear not only that courts matter, but everyday citizens have a hand in how these courts are shaped.

Reviewing the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions — from overturning “more than 100 years of federal and state efforts to regulate the role of money in campaigns” to declaring that corporations have the right to religious freedom under RFRA—Frank states that “the court has ended this term with a barrage against laws it does not like” (emphasis added).

He continues,

…The Supreme Court is now strongly inclined to impose conservative ideology via Constitutional interpretation on a broad range of public policy. It is true that Kennedy and to some extent Roberts occasionally deviate from this, but Justice Samuel Alito has surpassed even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in his ideological purity.

The relevance of this to the next two elections is very clear. Four of the sitting justices are in their late 70s or older. This means that there is a strong possibility that President Obama will have a chance to appoint another justice before his term expires, but his ability to do so will be determined not simply by the health of the justices in question, but by the composition of the U.S. Senate. The increasing partisanship in the Senate, the continued virulent influence of the tea party and recent history strongly suggest that even if a vacancy occurs, Obama will be prevented from filling it (emphasis added).

Frank refers to the unceasing Republican obstructionism and argues courts are critical for defining laws that affect Americans on a daily basis, highlighting the importance of this year’s midterm elections. As he concludes in this piece,

This makes it highly likely that among the issues that will be determined in the next senatorial and presidential election will be the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Voters should act accordingly.

PFAW

PFAW Applauds Confirmation of David Barron

The Senate today voted to approve the nomination of David Barron to First Circuit Court of Appeals by a vote of 53 to 45.

Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way issued the following statement:

“The Senate should be applauded today not just for confirming a well-qualified nominee, but for taking another important step towards addressing the persistent issue of vacancies on our nation’s circuit courts. For years, Republicans have blocked, delayed, and obstructed the confirmation of judges to our circuit courts at every opportunity. In recent months, Majority Leader Reid and the Democratic Caucus have been making real strides in processing the backlog of nominees.

“We need to continue to push hard to make sure Americans find fair-minded judges waiting for them when they turn to the federal courts to protect their rights.”

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PFAW Praises Senate for This Week’s Action on Judicial Confirmations

After a two week recess, the Senate has made significant progress in judicial confirmations on its first week back. This is not due to a drop in Republican obstruction, but instead to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s determination to overcome that obstruction. Only one week during President Obama’s administration has seen more judicial confirmations. Since Monday, over GOP filibuster efforts, the Senate has confirmed eight district court nominees and one circuit court nominee, while breaking the filibuster of a second circuit court nominee. Nancy L. Moritz’s nomination to the Tenth Circuit is scheduled for Monday, May 5.

Clearing so many of President Obama’s judicial nominations is a nearly unprecedented occurrence for a Senate that has been bogged down by Republican obstruction every step of the way. People For the American Way’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker released the following statement:

“This was a good week for our justice system, with nine judges confirmed to the bench. Americans saw critical advancement in confirming the circuit court nominees who have been denied a vote for months. A Ninth Circuit judge was confirmed, and the filibuster of a Tenth Circuit judge was broken. We applaud the Senate for moving forward on these confirmations, which are crucial for our justice system to run efficiently and serve everyday Americans. It is heartening to see the Senate taking this important step to strengthen our judiciary.

“Senator Reid’s efforts to prioritize this issue and clear President Obama’s judicial nominations are making an impact. Despite Senate Republicans blocking nominees and delaying votes from the beginning, Senator Reid has pushed to move these nominations forward and this week, we’ve seen that work pay off.

“We hope to continue to see the Senate working for the benefit of American citizens by giving them the fully functioning courts they deserve.”

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Obstruction 2.0: How Republican Senators Continue to Block Judicial Nominations Post-“Filibuster Reform”

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.

Click here more information on our Fair and Just Courts campaign.

PFAW

In the Senate, Michelle Friedland's Nomination to 9th Circuit Advances Despite Continued GOP Obstruction

Today, the Senate voted to advance the nomination of Michelle Friedland to the 9th Circuit.

Friedland was one of many superb, highly qualified judges caught up in Republicans' blanket obstruction of judicial nominees, and President Obama was forced to re-nominate her for the court this year. After today’s vote, she still faces 30 hours of potential "post-cloture debate," unless Republicans allow the Senate to move forward on the nomination more expeditiously.

Even though the Senate changed its filibuster rule for judicial and executive branch nominations, lowering the threshold from 60 votes to a simple majority in order to invoke cloture and advance nominees toward confirmation votes, Republicans continue to force cloture votes as a procedural hurdle. The delay created by these votes and the subsequent 30-hour wait before a confirmation can occur amounts to a stubborn form of obstruction in itself.

And this is just one way that Senate Republicans are continuing to hold up the judicial nomination process. Judicial nominees from states with Republican senators also face unreasonable, meritless obstruction due the GOP's abuse of the Senate's "blue slip" policy, by which a senator can unilaterally put a permanent hold on a nominee from his or her state before they even get a hearing.

There are currently 31 judicial nominees on the Senate's calendar, many for long-unfilled vacancies and nearly half for ones that have been declared "judicial emergencies." As vacancies languish, courts can't do their job and in turn, Americans are denied access to justice. If Republican senators ended their obstruction and allowed the 31 pending nominees to go through, that alone would fill a third of the nation's current vacancies.

But based on how Republicans on Capitol Hill are behaving, we shouldn't hold our breath.

Today alone, in addition to wasting the Senate's time and taxpayers' money by forcing the Leadership to hold a cloture vote on Michelle Friedland, instead of just bringing her confirmation straight to an up-or-down vote:

  • Republican senators successfully filibustered the Paycheck Fairness Act, for the third time, despite persistent inequity in pay for women and men doing the same work.
  • And on the House side, Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee blocked Democrats' attempt to bring the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) up for consideration.

We’re going to keep fighting to get as many more nominees confirmed as we can this year, before time runs out. But the message we send to Republicans in November is tremendously important as well.

Winning or losing at the ballot box could be the difference between a continued vacancy crisis on federal courts dominated by pro-corporate, conservative ideologue judges or the restoration of balance and justice to our courts with the confirmation of highly qualified judges who understand the promises of the Constitution and how the law impacts the lives of real people.

PFAW

John Boehner's House -- The Future of the Senate?

Look no further than John Boehner’s House of Representatives (really run by the Tea Party) for a crystal clear view of what we’ll get in the Senate if the GOP wins in November and takes full control of Congress.
PFAW

Reid Calls Out Republicans on Obstruction of Judicial Nominees

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.

PFAW

Senators Use PFAW Chart to Show Unprecedented Nature of GOP Obstruction

In their press conference following yesterday’s vote to change the Senate rules on filibusters, Democratic senators used a chart provided by PFAW to outline the extremity and unprecedented nature of the GOP’s obstruction of President Obama’s nominees.

chart-schumer

chart-Reid

Photos by J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press via The Washington Post

PFAW

Activist Toolkit: Stopping Senate Obstruction of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

Even before the President nominated supremely qualified nominees to the DC Circuit, some Senate Republicans had threatened to filibuster the them -- whoever they were, whatever their qualifications.

PFAW Applauds Nomination of Caitlin Halligan to DC Circuit

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.”

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PFAW Presents at 'Crisis in the Courts' Forum

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.

Panelists included:

• 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.

PFAW

PFAW: White House Summit Signals Priority on Ending Judicial Obstruction

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.)

 

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Judicial Obstruction: GOP Talking Points vs. The Facts

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed cloture petitions to end GOP filibusters of 17 district court nominees, an extraordinary move brought on by unprecedented Republican obstruction. The Senate GOP started immediately to try to spin the story to try to cover for the gridlock they had created. Here are the five main Republican talking points on the judicial obstruction showdown and the facts that rebut them:

GOP Talking Point #1: Senate Democrats have invented this conflict to make Republicans look bad. This is a little skirmish about timing that’s been blown out of proportion.

Sen. McConnell: “Rather than try to manufacture gridlock and create the illusion of conflict where none exists, why don’t we demonstrate we can kind of get something done together?”

Sen. Alexander: "This is a little disagreement that we have here between the Majority leader and the Republican leader on the scheduling of votes on district judges. It's not a high constitutional matter. It's not even a high principle. It's not even a big disagreement.”

The Facts:

  • Senate Democrats aren’t “manufacturing gridlock” – they’re bringing it into the daylight. Senate Republicans have created unprecedented gridlock over the last three years. Democrats are now calling them out on it.
  • President Obama’s judicial nominees have been met with such consistent obstruction that they now wait an average of four times longer than President Bush’s nominees just to reach a Senate vote. This unrelenting gridlock has helped create a historic vacancy crisis in the federal courts.
  • This is no minor matter: this is about whether 10% of our federal courtrooms remain empty. This is about Americans having access to fair and functioning courts.
  • If Senate Republicans wanted to move on from this issue, they could easily agree to schedule a vote today and confirm all 17 nominees. The Senate did just that in 2002, when it confirmed 17 of Bush’s district court nominees -- plus a Circuit Court nomination – all by  a voice vote in just a few minutes.
  • What’s really going on here is that Republicans don’t want these nominees to be put to a vote. No district court nominee has ever been successfully blocked by a filibuster – if they deny cloture on these nominees, the GOP will be setting a new and very dangerous standard.

GOP Talking Point #2: The GOP’s obstruction is a direct response to President Obama’s recess appointments.

Sen. Lee: "After the president made four unconstitutional appointments, we could no longer sustain the same level of cooperation.”

The Facts:

  • Senate Republicans have been obstructing President Obama’s judicial nominees from day one of his presidency. Even before the recess appointments, Obama nominees were stalled an average of four times as long as  Bush’s.
  • At the end of last year, even Sen. Lee was upset that Obama’s nominees weren’t getting votes. In December, he said he was “frustrated” that Utah District Court nominee David Nuffer had been stalled for two months on the Senate floor. “There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t have confirmed him before we got out.”
  • In August 2010, American Bar Association warned that the judicial vacancy crisis was leading to “justice denied.” In December 2010, Chief Justice John Roberts urged the Senate to solve “the persistent problem of judicial vacancies.” In April 2011, the Federal Bar Association warned that the vacancy crisis was harming business and costing taxpayers. For three years, Editorials Boards and commentators from across the nation have called for an end to obstruction. This is a persistent problem, not a new creation.

GOP Talking Point #3: Some of the filibustered nominees haven’t been on the calendar all that long, what’s the hurry?

Sen. Alexander: “We have 17 district court judgeships that have been recommended by the Judiciary committee. They could be brought up by the majority leader. He has the right to do that but of those 17, six of them - six of them - have been here for less than 30 days. They just got here.”

The Facts:

  • Moving district court nominees in under a month used to be the norm, not the exception. At this point in Bush’s presidency, the average district court nominee waited just 22 days after committee approval for a vote from the full Senate. Under President Obama, the average wait has been 93 days.
  • During Bush’s first term, 57 district court nominees were confirmed within a week of being approved by the Judiciary Committee. During Obama’s first term, only 5 have been.
  • On September 26, 2008, the Senate confirmed 10 district court judges by voice vote. All 10 had been reported just one day earlier.  In fact, 5 of these had just had their hearings three days earlier. Now, less than four years later and with a Democratic president in office, Republicans are saying this sort of quick processing of nominees is impossible.

GOP Talking Point #4: Senate Republicans are floating plans to vote “present” on the 17 cloture petitions, thus continuing to stall the nominees while not being tagged with a “no” vote.

Sen. Cornyn:Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told POLITICO he thinks Republicans will vote ‘no’ or ‘present’ on the cloture votes on judges and won't allow Democrats to ‘jam’ them.”

The Facts:

  • Voting “present” on cloture is exactly the same thing as voting “no.” Anyone who is at all familiar with Senate rules, where it takes 60 “yes” votes to end a filibuster understands this basic point.
  • If Republicans want to continue to obstruct these nominees, they should be willing to be clear about what they are doing, not opt for some ruse. The American people are smart enough to understand that a “present vote” indicates that Republicans are playing games rather than playing their Constitutionally mandated role to advise and consent.
  • No district court nominee has ever been blocked by a filibuster. Whether Republicans vote “no” or “present,” if they succeed in denying cloture to any of these 17 nominees, they will be creating a dangerous precedent.

GOP Talking Point #5: The Senate has more important issues to focus on.

Sen. McConnell: “It could be that is precisely what my friend the Majority leader has in mind, to try to make the Senate look like it's embroiled in controversy where no controversy exists. So my suggestion is, why don't we do first things first.”

The Facts:

  • Americans rely on having access to a fair and functioning judiciary to assert their rights in cases of civil rights violations, employment discrimination, dangerously defective consumer goods, predatory lending practices, immigrant rights, consumer fraud, environmental destruction, and other areas. Because of Republican obstruction, the courts we rely on are in jeopardy – and the American people are paying the price.
  • During the Obama presidency “judicial emergencies” declared by the U.S. Courts have soared from 20 to 35 and the vacancy rate has been kept at an all-time high. 160 million Americans live in districts or circuits with at least one judicial vacancy.
  • Senate Republicans could easily move on to other priorities – by simply agreeing to hold up-or-down votes on the 17 nominees who they are currently filibustering.

Press Contact: Miranda Blue, (202) 497-4999, media@pfaw.org

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Senate Confirms Bissoon, PFAW Urges Prompt Consideration of Remaining Nominees

The Senate last night voted overwhelmingly to confirm Cathy Bissoon as a United States District Court Judge in Pennsylvania, leaving 26 judicial nominees awaiting votes from the full Senate.

Tell the Senate: We've Had Enough Delay. Stop Republican Obstruction.

We've had enough delay and procedural foot dragging. It's time to stop Republican obstruction of judicial nominees.
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