The ‘confirmation wars’ aren’t quite over

THE ‘CONFIRMATION WARS’ AREN’T QUITE OVER…. Back in March, President Obama nominated David Hamilton for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Given Hamilton’s record of moderation, the White House said the nomination was intended to send a signal that the process of filling judicial vacancies need not be contentious. “We would like to put the history of the confirmation wars behind us,” one aide said.

Did it work? Not even a little. Republicans and far-right activists flipped out and seven months later, the Senate still hasn’t voted up or down on Hamilton’s nomination. Conservatives, in other words, have sent a very different signal: the confirmation wars aren’t even close to being finished.

As Michael Fletcher reported today, it’s part of a larger problem the White House would be wise to address.

During his first nine months in office, Obama has won confirmation in the Democratic-controlled Senate for just three of his 23 nominations for federal judgeships, largely because Republicans have used anonymous holds and filibuster threats to slow the proceedings to a crawl.

But some Democrats attribute that GOP success partly to the administration’s reluctance to fight, arguing that Obama’s emphasis on easing partisan rancor over judgeships has backfired and only emboldened Senate Republicans.

Some Republicans contend that the White House has hurt itself by its slow pace in sending over nominations for Senate consideration. President George W. Bush sent 95 names to the Senate in the same period that Obama has forwarded 23.

“I commend the president’s effort to change the tone in Washington,” said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “I recognize that he is extending an olive branch to Republicans on the Judiciary Committee and in the Senate overall. But so far, his efforts at reconciliation have been met with partisan hostility.”

There are 90 judicial vacancies waiting for confirmed judges, and the political delays are having predictable real-world consequences: backed up caseloads nationwide. There’s also the ideological shift to consider — given that Bush stacked the courts as aggressively and as quickly as he could with the most conservative jurists he could get away with. Obama’s desire for a less contentious process risks missing an opportunity to move the judiciary in a slightly more progressive direction.

White House officials expect things to pick up soon, and here’s hoping they’re right. As the Alliance for Justice’s Nan Aron noted, “It is incumbent on the Democrats and the White House to push as hard as they can to confirm judicial nominees, given that next year Republicans will make an all-out effort to block candidates as a means to gin up their base before the election.”

The Senate Democratic caucus has 60 members, and the Senate Republican caucus hopes to block or delay every judicial nominee. There’s no excuse for failing to get the process moving quickly — Dems may not get a chance like this one again for a long time.