Judicial Nominees Deserve Votes
A year is a long time to wait to find out whether you have a job. Nominated for the South Carolina District Court on March 16, 2011, Mary Geiger Lewis—supported by Sen. Lindsey Graham—is still waiting.
Washington’s partisan gridlock has stymied not just the policy process, but also the responsibility of the Senate to give advice and consent in the nomination process. Our federal court system—indispensable to the nation’s economy and the justice and freedoms we cherish—is being quietly undermined by needless deadlock.
It is the president’s job to nominate individuals to serve as federal judges, and the Senate’s job to consider their confirmation. Unfortunately, neither the White House nor the Senate has done their jobs at a quick enough pace—often for unrelated and avoidable political reasons—resulting in staggering delays and mounting caseloads in our federal courts.
While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed last session to hold votes on several nominees, approximately one of every 10 federal judgeships remains vacant due to death or retirement. The near 10 percent vacancy rate has been steady for the past 24 months.
Why is this a problem? An understaffed judiciary means case backlogs. Backlogs mean justice delayed in cases involving protection of individual rights, advancement of business interests, compensation for injured victims and enforcement of federal laws.
Longstanding vacancies on courts with staggering caseloads impede access to the courts. They create strains that, if not eased, threaten to reduce the quality of our justice system. They erode confidence in the courts’ ability to uphold constitutional rights and render fair and timely decisions.
Delay at the federal courts puts people’s lives on hold while they wait for their cases to be resolved. Businesses face uncertainty and costly holdups, preventing them from investing and creating jobs. In sum, judicial vacancies kill jobs.
Justice delayed, as the famous maxim goes, is justice denied. It’s bad for business, it’s unfair to individuals, and it slows government enforcement actions, which ultimately costs taxpayers money.
Since taking office, the President has nominated 121 individuals to the federal bench and the Senate has confirmed 68. President Obama has made nominations for approximately half of the current vacancies and 20 of the 42 nominees have had hearings and bipartisan approvals by the Senate Judiciary Committee but no vote in the full Senate.
President Obama must offer a nominee for every judicial vacancy and the Senate should schedule up-or-down votes for every nominee approved by the Judiciary Committee. It is more important to see our federal judiciary staffed than to assign blame. After all, as Chief Justice John Roberts astutely observed earlier this year, “Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes.”
The White House and Senate need an incentive to solve the problem. That push can come only from their constituents.
Write President Obama to ask that he give special priority to making nominations to the federal courts, and that he use the bully pulpit to call on the Senate to act on them. Write or call your senators to urge that they demand hearings for nominees in the Judiciary Committee and up-or-down votes in the full Senate.
Ask the president and your senators to encourage Sens. Reid and McConnell to build on their recent success by continuing to schedule multiple nominees for Senate votes on the same day at regular intervals throughout the remainder of this session.
Given the federal courts’ long-term backlogs, it’s important that nominations and confirmations outpace attrition. The Reid-McConnell agreement is exactly the kind of cooperative endeavor we need to secure the justice system that protects all of us. Nothing less than a sustained, concerted and bipartisan effort will make meaningful progress towards filling vacancies on the federal bench. Nothing less will assure South Carolinians and job makers that our federal courts are open for business.
February 27, 2012
Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III
The author is president of the _ and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd, LLC.