Crisis on the courts

As the Senate wrapped up business before its August break, magnanimous Republicans graciously allowed the chamber to briefly function, approving four of President Obama’s judicial nominees. Senate Democrats hoped to move on 20 other judges — all of whom enjoyed bipartisan support in the Judiciary Committee — but the GOP Senate minority refused. All of those 20 were qualified jurists, but Republicans didn’t care.

From time to time, it’s worth remembering that among DC’s many political crises, the vacancies on the federal judiciary rank pretty high. The Washington Post editorial board recently got this largely right.

There are 88 federal court vacancies, and five judges have announced their plans to retire. Mr. Obama was woefully slow in sending up nominations early in his term, nominating only 34 in 2009. But he has picked up the pace, with 71 nominations in 2010 and 50 so far this year. Yet the Senate has confirmed just 35 Obama judicial nominees this year — with only three for the courts of appeals. The responsibility for lingering vacancies now lies primarily with Capitol Hill. […]

The gamesmanship is not only frustrating but also destructive. The lives of nominees and their families are put on hold. Cases grind to a halt and expenses for litigants soar as even relatively simple matters take an inordinate amount of time to resolve. The legitimacy of the courts is undermined. Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association, put it well in a recent letter urging Senate leaders to move expeditiously on filling empty judicial slots that “create strains that will inevitably reduce the quality of our justice system and erode public confidence in the ability of the courts to vindicate constitutional rights or render fair and timely decisions.”

The White House also appears to be taking this at least a little more seriously, today unveiling an interesting “infographic” that highlights the diversity of Obama’s nominees, and reminds us about the broken confirmation process. This part of the image, comparing the obstructionism against other modern presidents, was of particular interest:

It’s a little tough to see (click on the image for a larger view), but note that the average wait time for a Bush circuit court nominee was 29 days. For Obama, it’s 151 days.

For many, especially in the media, there’s a sense that the obstructionism we’re seeing is just routine political wrangling — Dems do this to GOP presidents, Republicans do this to Democratic presidents. Nothing to see here.

This perception is demonstrably wrong. Obama’s judicial nominees are being blocked at a level unseen in American history. This isn’t just denying an elected president an opportunity to leave his mark on the judiciary; these delays are literally undermining the nation’s system of justice.