Memo: On D.C. Circuit, Senate GOP Faces Choice Between Governance and Obstruction

To: Editorial boards and journalists
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way
Date: September 11, 2013
Re: On D.C. Circuit, Senate GOP Faces Choice Between Governance and Obstruction


The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing today on the nomination of Judge Robert L. Wilkins, one of President Obama’s three nominees to the influential Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Wilkins, like his fellow nominees Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and Patricia Millett, is indisputably qualified. In fact, the Senate unanimously confirmed him in 2010 to his current position on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. But Wilkins’ nomination, like those of Pillard and Millett, risks being caught up in political gridlock that has nothing to do with his qualifications.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Millett’s nomination last month along party lines, with Republican senators making clear that their objections were all about politics and not about the nominee’s merits. The committee will vote on Pillard’s nomination next week.

We urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to fairly consider Wilkins and the Senate GOP to allow yes-or-no votes on all three nominees.

Another highly qualified, principled nominee

As President Obama made clear in his Rose Garden speech announcing the nominations of Wilkins, Pillard and Millett, all three are highly qualified, principled individuals who will be an enormous asset to the D.C. Circuit, frequently referred to as the second most influential court in the nation.  A graduate of Harvard Law School, Judge Wilkins served for over a decade at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where he was recognized by the Legal Times as the []office’s “premier advocate.” In 2002, Wilkins joined the respected law firm Venable LLP, where he oversaw complex financial industry cases and was recognized as one of Washington’s top lawyers by Washingtonian Magazine and the Legal Times.

In 1993, as a private citizen, Wilkins led one of the nation’s most influential legal battles against racial profiling. After his car was stopped and searched for drugs by Maryland state police while he was driving home from his grandfather’s funeral, Wilkins filed a lawsuit against the state. The suit revealed that the state police had directed its troopers to target African American motorists for highway drug searches. The case, Wilkins, et al. v. State of Maryland, influenced the entire country: 46 states now collect data to detect and prevent racial profiling of drivers.

Wilkins has been a leader in the effort to establish and create the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In 2000, he left his job to work full-time on the establishment of the museum, working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to establish a commission to plan the museum. The Senate later appointed Wilkins to chair the commission’s site and building committee. The museum is set to open in 2015.

In 2010, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Wilkins to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The American Bar Association has rated him Unanimously Well Qualified for the D.C. Circuit, its highest rating for judicial nominees.

Senate Republicans’ persistent obstruction

Senate Republicans have threatened to filibuster Wilkins’ nomination, along with those of fellow nominees Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and Patricia Millett, simply because they do not want President Obama to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit.

This is the most extreme manifestation yet of the Senate GOP’s campaign of delays and inaction against President Obama’s judicial nominees. Because of Republican slow-walking, President Obama’s confirmed judicial nominees have been forced to wait nearly three times as long for a yes-or-no vote from the Senate than were President George W. Bush’s nominees by this point in his presidency. During George W. Bush’s entire eight years in office, the Senate minority filibustered 18 judicial nominations; in the first five years of Obama’s presidency, there have already been 31 judicial filibusters. Many of these filibusters have had nothing to do with the nominees themselves: Nearly half of the Obama circuit court nominees who Republicans have filibustered are people they ultimately supported overwhelmingly.

The result is that more than ten percent of seats on lower federal courts are now or will soon be vacant. More than one third of current vacancies are in courts so over-extended that the Judicial Conference of the United States has declared them “judicial emergencies.”

This pattern holds true at the D.C. Circuit, where three of eleven active judgeships are vacant. The Senate has confirmed just one Obama nominee to the D.C. Circuit, in contrast to the four George W. Bush nominees, three Clinton nominees, three George H.W. Bush nominees and eight Reagan nominees.

This persistent obstruction has been detrimental to the federal court system, causing delays for individuals and businesses seeking their day in court.

But it has also delayed President Obama’s efforts to put qualified nominees with a diversity of backgrounds on the federal bench. Forty-one percent of President Obama confirmed nominees have been women, compared with just 22 percent of President Bush’s nominees. Likewise, 38 percent of President Obama’s nominees have been people of color, in contrast to just 18 percent of President Bush’s nominees.

The nominations of Wilkins, who is African American, and Millett and Pillard, who are both women, to the D.C. Circuit represent President Obama’s commitment to picking highly qualified, diverse nominees to the nation’s courts. Senate Republicans should give these nominees the respect of reviewing them on their merits, rather than using them as pawns in destructive political infighting.

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