As Lawrence O’Donnell has noted, the Supreme Court is and always will be a critically important issue in any presidential campaign. That said, we shouldn’t ignore the nation’s lower federal courts.
During its 2010-2011 term, the Court heard arguments in 86 cases. In contrast, according to the Chief Justice’s 2011 year-end report on the judiciary, 55,000 cases were filed in the circuit courts and more than 350,000 cases were filed in federal district courts.
That means for every Lilly Ledbetter who makes it to the Supreme Court, there are hundreds of Lilly Ledbetters whose fate is decided in federal district or circuit courts. For every Concepcion family told by the Roberts Court they can’t sue their cell phone company for cheating them, there are countless other American consumers fighting in courts across America to protect their rights from being violated by large corporations. For every Hannah Bruesewitz whose parents are told by the Roberts Court that they cannot sue a drug manufacturer over a design defect in their children’s vaccine, there are so many ill Americans whose names we will never know who are fighting for their rights – and their health – against enormous drug companies and insurance companies.
Yes, the Supreme Court is critically important. Its decisions certainly affect everyone in the country. But the nation’s district and circuit courts are most often where the legal battle between individuals and those who would violate their rights is occurring. Every day, they are dealing with cases involving predatory lending practices, consumer fraud, immigrant rights, environmental destruction, civil rights violations … the list goes on.
These courts matter. That’s why Senate Republicans have engaged in unprecedented obstruction to keep President Obama’s qualified judicial nominees off the bench. Despite the vacancy crisis that is making justice harder and harder to find, the GOP would rather see our courtrooms remain empty, perhaps in the hope that a Republican president will fill them in 2013 and beyond.
Right now, there are 20 highly qualified nominees who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee who are waiting for a simple up-or-down vote from the Senate. Eighteen were approved by the Judiciary Committee with very strong bipartisan support: 13 without any opposition at all, and 5 with Sen. Mike Lee as the sole "no" vote. (Lee has said he will vote against every nominee to protest President Obama’s recent recess appointments.) Incredibly, despite the almost complete absence of opposition, 11 have been waiting for three months or more for a vote from the full Senate.
With so many Americans relying on the lower federal courts to vindicate their rights, it is critically important to end of the partisan obstruction of judicial nominees. These courts matter.