THE BLOG
11/05/2014 10:54 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Lame Duck Opportunity and Obligation: Confirm Judges

Marilyn Nieves via Getty Images

During the upcoming lame duck session, the Senate has an opportunity to finish up a critically important task where they can act quickly by unanimous consent or voice votes: confirming two dozen judicial nominees.

The GOP's behavior during their last few weeks as the minority party will be very telling. Before taking over the chamber next year, will they allow the Senate to do its job and confirm nominees? Or will Republicans continue their pattern of obstructing or delaying action on highly qualified nominees -- even ones recommended to the White House by GOP senators -- just because Democrats support them? This may give Americans some insight on whether Senate Republicans plan to use their newfound majority next year in a constructive manner, or whether they will continue to put destructive partisanship above the nation's welfare.

In September, senators left town without voting on any of the 16 district court nominees who had already been fully vetted by the Judiciary Committee and advanced to the Senate floor. Another eight district court nominees had their hearings in September and will be ready for committee approval the week the Senate returns, so the full Senate will be able to hold votes for them, as well. That's at least 24 district court vacancies that could be filled during the lame duck.

Eight of these would fill vacancies in three states -- Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky -- where the need is so great that the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has formally designated them as "judicial emergencies." All three of these states are represented by Republican senators, including the future Majority Leader.

In the Northern District of Georgia, the workload has gotten so high that even if the nominees were confirmed tomorrow, it would not be enough to ensure Americans their day in court. That is why the nonpartisan Judicial Conference of the United States has urged Congress to create two new judgeships there.

The situation is even more dire in Texas, where the Senate has a chance to fill three vacancies in the Eastern and Western Districts. The Western District judgeship has been vacant since 2008, and the Judicial Conference has asked for five new judgeships there to carry the load on top of filling all the existing vacancies. Chief Judge Fred Biery discussed the need for new judges last year, saying, "It would be nice to get some help. We are pedaling as fast as we can on an increasingly rickety bicycle." Judge David Ezra, formerly of Hawaii, explained why he was moving to Texas to hear cases in the Western District: "This is corollary to having a big wild fire in the Southwest Border states, and fire fighters from Hawaii going there to help put out the fire."

The Eastern District of Texas is in similar need of getting its vacancies filled during the lame duck: Of the nation's 94 federal districts, only two have had more weighted filings per judgeship than the Eastern District, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts' most recent statistics. Small wonder, then, that the Judicial Conference has asked for two new judgeships there: Even if every judgeship were filled, that just isn't enough. To make matters worse, two more judges in the Eastern District have announced their intention to retire or take senior status next year, making it all the more important to fill the current vacancies now.

(Senators also have another opportunity to help the people of Texas: Three nominees for the Southern District will likely have their committee hearings this month. Nominated by President Obama upon the recommendation of Sens. Cornyn and Cruz, these nominees can get a timely committee vote if the GOP cooperates, making them eligible to join the others on the Senate floor. Two of these vacancies are judicial emergencies, but even if they are filled, the Judicial Conference recommended that Congress create an additional two new judgeships to bring the Southern District up to an acceptable level of efficiency.)

There is no reason not to allow the Senate to vote on the judicial nominations before it. In fact, a number of Republican senators are on record supporting specific nominees from their state who they had recommended to the White House. For instance, back in June, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson urged "swift confirmation" for nominee Pam Pepper. Last spring, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey said he would work to make sure that four nominees from the Eastern District would be confirmed "as soon as possible." During the summer, Illinois' Mark Kirk said he would "urge the full Senate to swiftly approve" John Blakey, who is expected to be approved by the Judiciary Committee later this month.

In past years, when the Senate was a more functional body, confirmation votes for district court nominees were regularly held by unanimous consent or voice vote, taking a few seconds or minutes at most. That includes during lame duck sessions.

For instance, after the 2002 midterms, even though Senate Democrats had lost control of the chamber in the elections, they worked closely with Republicans during the lame duck session to make sure that 20 of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees got confirmed. These included a highly controversial circuit court nominee who was confirmed by a 55-44 roll call vote. The other 19 were confirmed by voice vote, 18 of them on the same day. In 2014, as in 2002, the Senate can voice-vote all the consensus nominees and hold roll-call votes on the handful who may have some opposition.

If the majority is allowed to hold confirmation votes on the nominees who have been fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee, this will finally let the president reduce the number of vacancies in America's court system to what it was when Bush left office. Republicans should cooperate in this endeavor rather than try to frustrate it. After all, this is basic governance, and something the Senate can do easily and quickly.

Will this happen without a fight? While we don't know for sure, recent GOP actions are not encouraging. For nearly a year, Republicans have filibustered every single judicial nomination without exception, even when they support the nominee. Obstruction continues even after the cloture vote. Absent unanimous consent to do otherwise, Senate rules require a period of "post-cloture debate" after a filibuster is broken: 30 hours for circuit and two hours for district court nominees. Since the rules also let the Democrats cede their half of the two-hour period for district court nominees, those post-cloture periods can be shortened. In recent months, Democrats and Republicans have often agreed to hold confirmation votes the day after the cloture votes without actually requiring that floor time be devoted to post-cloture debate on the nominee. This is what passes for GOP "cooperation" these days: A roll-call cloture vote with near-uniform Republican opposition, a delay of at least a day, and then a time-consuming roll-call confirmation vote for a nominee who usually has overwhelming if not unanimous bipartisan support.

The Constitution assigns to the Senate the job of deciding whether to confirm the president's judicial nominees. When the Senate is prevented from acting on this basic task in a timely manner, the entire third branch of the United States government atrophies. Americans are justly proud of our judicial system, which we count on to guarantee fairness and justice for all. It is not a controversial or partisan position to state that our courts should be staffed. And it should not be a controversial or partisan position to say that the Senate should be allowed to vote by year's end on whether to confirm the two dozen judicial nominees whose time would be better spent hearing cases rather than waiting out partisan senators.