Thursday, January 21, 2010

Where are the judges?

Jeffrey Toobin asks this question in the New Yorker. It's a fair question. What is taking Obama so long? Toobin:

When Obama took office, there were more than a hundred vacancies on the federal appeals and district courts. One year into his tenure, Obama has made only thirty-one appointments to those courts, and just twelve have been confirmed. In George W. Bush’s first year, with a similar number of vacancies, he made sixty-four nominations. White House officials assert that ten new district court nominations are imminent, but the overall pace remains astonishingly slow. I wrote about this aspect of Obama’s Presidency last September, and the trend has continued.

Why is this? In part, it’s because a Supreme Court vacancy, which the President filled with the admirable Sonia Sotomayor, occupied the White House through the summer months. That successful nomination is both more important—and was more time-consuming—than any of the others.

But there is another major factor as well. As a former Senator himself, the President is a believer in the tradition of senatorial direction of district-court nominations, and senatorial influence on appeals-court choices. The President wanted to include senators in the process, including those of the opposition party. It was an example of Obama’s post-partisan plans in action. If Republicans had a voice in the judicial nominations process, the theory went, partisan bickering would slow, if not cease, and the judiciary would inch away from the culture wars.
As in other areas, Obama’s hopes for post-partisanship failed when it came to the judiciary. Republicans have stalled on many nominations, fought others, and mostly done their best to slow down the pace. What’s perplexing is that Obama himself has not filled the pipeline with nominations; if he did, Republicans might feel some pressure to move the process along. Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has held prompt hearings for all of Obama’s nominees, but he can’t hold hearings on nominations that haven’t yet been made.

I don't think either of these explanations work. So what that the administration was working on Justice Sotomayor? It should have been working equally hard on filling the other slots. And as for wanting the Senators' support, I'm not sure this is true. In Florida, for example, the rumors are that the Oval Office did not want a recommendation from the Senators (even though that's how it had worked in the past), which delayed the process. Thankfully, Kathy Williams is finally being vetted. But more openings are on the horizon in the District; hopefully we'll see them filled faster.

UPDATE -- Well, at least one open seat (Lanier Anderson's) just got filled -- the Senate just confirmed new 11th Circuit judge Beverly Martin 97-0. Congrats!

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