Sen. Pat Toomey is running for reelection next year in a state that tends to favor Democrats in presidential election years. So it is no surprise that the former head of the far right Club For Growth opened his campaign by presenting himself as a moderate. As station WITF reports, Toomey presented the area of judicial nominations as an example of his ability to work across the aisle:
“One of the areas [Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and I] work together regularly on is filling vacancies on the federal bench,” Toomey said. “The fact is in the four and a half or so years I’ve been in the Senate, we have been able to recruit, vet, nominate, confirm 15 men and women across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Many judicial appointments are held up by partisan bickering.
Unfortunately, judges are one of the areas where Toomey has regularly put conservative ideology and the interests of party leaders in Washington, DC, ahead of the interests of the people of Pennsylvania.
The current example involves Phil Restrepo, President Obama’s nominee for the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has formally classified the vacancy Restrepo would fill as a “judicial emergency” because the caseload per judge is so high. When judges are overburdened, it is hard for the court to provide justice to litigants in a timely, efficient, and fair manner, forcing too many people to learn the hard way that justice delayed is justice denied.
President Obama nominated L. Felipe Restrepo way back in November, and both Toomey and Casey praised the nomination. That’s important, because the Judiciary Committee generally won’t even give a judicial nominee a hearing until their home-state senators formally signal their approval on a blue slip of paper. Casey his submitted his blue slip immediately, but Toomey did not, giving cover to committee chairman Chuck Grassley’s efforts to delay the hearing for as long as possible (part of the GOP’s efforts to obstruct a Democratic president’s efforts to staff the nation’s courts with fair, just, and qualified judges in the hopes of leaving as many vacancies as possible for a Republican successor to Obama to fill). It took a full seven months before Grassley held the hearing, far longer than was necessary. The senator faced a torrent of criticism at home for his role in the delay, and Toomey’s efforts to explain Restrepo’s delay raised more questions than they answered.
There was enough time after the June hearing to confirm Restrepo before a second vacancy was scheduled to open in July. Toomey could have prevented the Third Circuit from having two simultaneous vacancies by using his influence with his Republican colleagues to have Restrepo confirmed in time. However, he chose not to.
When it became clear that Grassley was planning to delay the scheduled committee vote by two weeks for no reason other than delay’s sake, Toomey could have interceded with his fellow Republican. That is exactly the kind of thing that home-state senators do for nominees they support. But Toomey chose not to ask Grassley to hold the vote as scheduled.
When the committee finally approved the nomination in July – unanimously, by the way – there was plenty of time to get him confirmed and fill the emergency vacancy before the Senate’s August recess. But Toomey failed to press his party leader for a timely vote on Restrepo, the Senate left town, and the vacancy remains open today.
Unfortunately, the Restrepo nomination is not the first time Toomey has put ideology and partisan judicial obstruction ahead of Pennsylvanians’ needs. In late 2013 and early 2014, he voted in lockstep with Washington Republicans to prevent President Obama from filling any of the three vacant judgeships on the critically important D.C. Circuit Court. Second in importance only to the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit is the exclusive court to consider appeals of a wide variety of federal agency regulations and decisions affecting the entire country. Dominated by ideological conservatives, the court was becoming increasingly notorious for issuing troubling decisions favoring the powerful and limiting the role government can play to address national problems. Working to keep the D.C. Circuit both short-staffed and dominated by far-right conservatives certainly didn’t help the people of Pennsylvania. Yet he voted against all three highly qualified nominees: Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard, and Robert Wilkins.
Toomey apparently didn’t mention any of this in his re-election speech, but it is something Pennsylvanians ought to know when they go to the polls next year.