In a recent, important speech before the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy decried the growing crisis in our nation's federal courts caused by an increasingly insufficient number of judges available to dispense justice to the American people. Justice Kennedy not only urged Congress to create additional judgeships, but he also questioned whether the Senate confirmation process for federal judges is "working the way it should be." Well, it surely isn't. Just ask Kimberly Mueller, who was nominated by President Obama back in March to fill a vacancy in the Eastern District of California and was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 6 without opposition, yet is languishing in Senate limbo, still waiting for a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.
In his speech, Justice Kennedy highlighted the judicial crisis in the Eastern District of California, the court to which Mueller has been nominated. The District serves a population of nearly seven million people in a geographic area that encompasses more than half of the state. Right now, there are only five active judges in the Eastern District, yet, according to Justice Kennedy, "the statistics tell us we need 15." California Senator Barbara Boxer has noted that the court's judges are carrying a caseload of "more than 1,100 cases per judge . . . more than twice the recommended number of cases per judge according to the Judicial Conference." Only one other judgeship is authorized for the District, but that position - the one to which Mueller has been nominated -- remains vacant. No wonder the federal judiciary has declared this vacancy to be a "judicial emergency."
Kimberly Mueller is about as uncontroversial as judicial nominees get. A graduate of Stanford Law School, Mueller has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Sacramento since 2003, and the ABA has rated her "unanimously well qualified" to be a District Judge. If confirmed, Mueller would be the first woman to serve as a District Judge in the Eastern District. (Yes, as hard as it is to believe in 2010, there are still "firsts" to be achieved for women in the legal profession.)
During any other Administration, an uncontroversial District Court nominee like Kimberly Mueller would have moved quickly from the Senate Judiciary Committee to a prompt confirmation vote on the Senate floor, particularly given the judicial crisis in the District to which she has been nominated.
So why is Kimberly Mueller still waiting for a vote? The answer is simple, and unacceptable. Throughout the Obama presidency, Senate Republicans have taken judicial obstructionism to an entirely new level, abusing the Senate's procedural rules to block even the most uncontroversial of the President's judicial nominees and giving new meaning to the phrase "Just Say No." Mueller is one of many of these new pawns in this obstructionist game, which Republicans are playing to increase the backlog of nominees on the Senate floor and keep President Obama from filling judicial vacancies. This rank, hyper-partisanship diminishes the ability of our federal courts to dispense justice fairly and timely, and should concern every American, no matter his or her political leanings.
As trial level courts, the federal District Courts, like the one to which Magistrate Judge Mueller has been nominated, are the front lines for Americans seeking justice for violation of their federal constitutional and statutory rights as well as accountability from powerful wrongdoers, including corporations that illegally discriminate against their employees or flout federal laws intended to protect the environment. Some of these courts - like the Eastern District of California - are ridiculously overworked. When vacancies on these courts go unfilled, justice is delayed, and often denied -- to the detriment of all Americans.
On September 13th, the Senate will return from its August recess for several weeks of business before it takes a pre-election recess. While there will be much on the Senate's plate in that short period, it is imperative that Kimberly Mueller -- and the President's other judicial nominees who have been favorably vetted by the Judiciary Committee -- receive an up or down vote on the Senate floor. No less than the American system of justice is at stake.
(Cross-posted at Constitutional Accountability Center's blog)