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Federal Judge Deficit Threatens to Put Justice Into Default

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While Congress is consumed with a bitter fight over the federal budget deficit, the federal judge deficit continues to fester. Today, there are 115 federal district and circuit court judgeships currently or soon-to-be vacant -- that's one out of seven seats. Tragically, that's actually more vacancies than existed at the beginning of this session of Congress. It's becoming increasingly clear that little progress has been made in filling the enormous gaps in the American judiciary, in spite of promises from Republicans to end their campaign of willful obstruction that left President Obama at the end of his first two years with the worst record of judicial confirmations in American history.

With the federal judicial system tottering under the weight of understaffed courts, the president has nominated a steady stream of highly-qualified men and women to the bench (many more than once) and the Senate Judiciary Committee, under the stalwart leadership of Chairman Patrick Leahy, has done its part to send nominees to the Senate floor for a final vote. But once that happens, nominees find themselves mired in legislative quicksand, blocked from confirmation by the stubborn refusal of the Republican leadership to allow final votes.

Promises made at the beginning of this Congress to regularize the confirmation process have clearly been discarded and Republican senators have resumed their obstinate tactics, allowing votes on only five nominees to lifetime seats in the last 10 weeks. As of today, there are 24 nominees awaiting final votes, all but one of whom were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously or with only token opposition. Five more are expected to be cleared by the committee this week, which will bring the total backlog to 29, including 12 for courts officially designated as facing judicial emergencies.

Republican rhetoric aside, there are no ideological disputes at play here; virtually every nominee now being held hostage in legislative limbo would be confirmed unanimously or with overwhelming majorities if they were allowed to receive a vote. This is a blockade built purely out of spite and can only be interpreted as an effort to undermine the president, no matter what the consequences or who gets hurt in the process.

Ultimately, though, it's not the president being damaged by these tactics, it's the American people and the rule of law. The federal courts are not political playthings. They are a fundamental and essential part of our democracy. To casually damage them for no reason other than to use them as fodder in partisan warfare is an astounding abdication of responsibility, unprecedented in American history. It needs to stop now.

In the current contentious environment, the American people are desperate for constructive action from the Congress. One place to start would be for the Senate to give a final vote before its August recess to the 29 men and women who are ready, willing, and able to serve their country from the federal bench.

It's time to end the deficit of judges before justice itself goes into default.