06/15/2012 08:55 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

The "Thurmond Rule" -- Another Blot on the Senate

Just when I was thinking that the U.S. Senate couldn't possibly become sillier or more dysfunctional, along comes Mitch McConnell to prove me wrong.

The Senate Republican leader announced Wednesday that he's invoking the "Thurmond Rule," or the "Thurmond-Leahy" rule as some call it, to block action on President Obama's nominations for federal circuit court judgeships until after the November election.

The rule is one of those hoary Senate customs that everyone observes but no one can justify. It's used every four years, sometimes by Democrats but this year by McConnell and his fellow Republicans, to freeze judicial confirmations in the final months of the president's term.

And it is indefensible. The rule tells the public that the party invoking it cares more about partisan advantage than efficient, fair and impartial justice, that it's willing to stack cases up like cordwood in our courts just to deny the possibly departing president one of the perks of his office and allow the new president -- if one is elected -- to begin immediately putting his imprimatur on the federal bench. It tells prospective judges, who almost always take a substantial pay cut to accept a judicial appointment, that their judicial temperament and legal training have little to do with the Senate's view of their qualifications to serve.

This year, McConnell's use of the rule will hold open 14 circuit judgeships, including four in circuits where the backlog of cases is so large that court administrators have declared a "judicial emergency." One of the open judgeships, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts reports, has been vacant since 2004.

The circuit courts are the middle rung in the federal judicial ladder, between the trial-level district courts and the Supreme Court. When they're overburdened, cases that should be resolved in a matter of months drag on for years; the Senate apparently has no concept of the old maxim that "justice delayed is justice denied."

By the fall, Republicans promised this week, the Thurmond rule will be extended to stop action on district court vacancies -- there are 59 of those right now, including 25 for which Obama already has submitted a nomination.

The only explanation senators offer for this nonsense is that this is the way they've always operated -- as if the tradition was a source of pride rather than an embarrassment.

What a shame.