It’s up to Senate Republicans to cooperate in order to a fill a growing number of judicial vacancies rising to “crisis” levels, according to top Senate Democrats.
The rapidly shrinking number of federal judges, and the rising case backlog that shrinkage is causing, became a top story Tuesday in the Washington Post with the headline, “Federal judicial vacancies reaching crisis point.”
The three federal judges in Tucson, Ariz., alone must contend with about 1,200 cases each, the Post story says, noting the state has declared a judicial emergency.
Overall, there are some 104 vacancies on federal district and circuit courts, 49 of which are determined to be judicial emergencies by the nonpartisan Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which means there are not enough judges on the bench to do the work of the district or the circuit.
The problem isn’t news to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel which must confirm President Obama’s nominations to the federal bench. Leahy has long complained that Senate Republicans have been standing in the way of allowing those confirmations to proceed.
Leahy has been complaining for the last year that Republicans have been playing games to delay confirmation of Obama-nominated judges. He noted, for instance, that GOP senators would block nominees that Republicans on the Judiciary Committee had approved unanimously.
The Senate on Monday night completed final action on three long-pending judicial nominations. All three nominations garnered the unanimous support of the Senate, and will fill seats designated as judicial emergencies.
“I am hopeful that our actions today signal a return to regular order in the consideration of nominations without unexplained and damaging delays,” says Leahy. “I am hopeful that this signals a return to cooperation to confront a judicial vacancies crisis that has put at serious risk the ability of all Americans to find equal access to a fair hearing in court.”
Leahy has noted that the Senate’s pace of confirmation of Obama’s judicial nominations has dramatically fallen behind that which Democrats provided for President George W. Bush during the Bush presidency.
“All three branches of the federal government come together when the Senate considers a President’s nomination to a lifetime appointment on the federal bench,” Leahy says. “The Senate has a constitutional duty to act responsibly to consider the President’s nominees and to confirm members of the judiciary. Most importantly, the Senate has a responsibility to the American people to help ensure that Federal judges are there to protect their rights and administer justice.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says that the Senate has much further to go after this week approving the nominations of Marco Hernandez, Paul Holmes and Diana Saldana.
“This bipartisan action is an important step forward. But it is also a small step. Our courts have too many cases and too few judges on the bench,” Reid says. “In some places, the shortage of judges is crippling the system. Democrats and Republicans must work together to ensure the health of this nation’s justice system, and I hope today’s bipartisan effort to give our courts in crisis the tools they need will be the standard in the future instead of the exception.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.