Yesterday on the Senate floor, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy urged his Republican colleagues to stop politicizing district court nominations. As the Senate prepared to confirm one of the many district court nominees who would have had confirmation votes long ago but for Republican obstruction, he outlined the vacancy crisis facing America’s federal courts.
There are currently 78 Federal judicial vacancies. Judicial vacancies during the last few years have been at historically high levels and have remained near or above 80 for nearly the entire first term of the President. Nearly one out of every 11 Federal judgeships is currently vacant. Vacancies on the Federal courts are more than two and one half times as many as they were on this date during the first term of President Bush. One key reason for these numerous vacancies and for the extensive backlog of nominees is that Senate Republicans allowed votes on just one district court nominee per week for the last seven weeks before the August recess. This unnecessarily slow pace of consideration of judicial nominees has disserved the American people and should not continue.
Leahy explained just how this hurts Americans across the country:
[F]illing vacancies on district courts is essential to ensuring that the American people have functioning courts to serve them and provide access to justice. We know that it is unacceptable for hardworking Americans who turn to their courts for justice to suffer unnecessary delays. When an injured plaintiff sues to help cover the cost of his or her medical expenses, that plaintiff should not have to wait three years before a judge hears the case. When two small business owners disagree over a contract, they should not have to wait years for a court to resolve their dispute.
Sen. Leahy’s floor speech describes the comity between parties that used to exist when it comes to district court nominations. Timely confirmation votes were held, and nominees with home-state senators’ support were almost always confirmed without opposition. But Republicans aggressively politicized district court nominations when President Obama took office, preventing votes and keeping courtrooms empty. (Even though Democrats control the Senate, the chamber’s rules give the minority party the power to block the majority from even scheduling a vote.) Even for nominees with no opposition who are strongly supported by home-state Republican senators, GOP leaders force confirmation votes to be delayed for months.
Chairman Leahy is correct to urge Senate Republicans to stop playing politics and to allow votes on all the pending district court nominees without delay.