After a slow start, the Obama administration picked up the pace in filling judgeships, but it will end up with more vacancies on Election Day than the day the president took office. Currently, 32 positions, considered “judicial emergencies” by court administrators, are unfilled, creating heavy workloads for judges on those courts.
On the federal appeals courts, the final arbiters on all but the tiny percentage of cases decided by the Supreme Court, there are now 14 judgeships open out of 179 total seats. With about six judges a year taking senior status, working only part time, the next president could have as many as 40 appellate openings to fill by the end of 2016.
On the trial courts, which resolve around 325,000 cases a year, six times the number of appeals court cases, there are now 62 vacancies out of 677 positions.
Much of the problem, of course, has been the broken confirmation process in the Senate, where Republicans have used the filibuster to block judicial nominees for no reason except to prevent President Obama from filling the seats. In the next Congress, the Senate should ensure every nominee an up-or-down vote within 90 days.
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, one of the nation’s most important courts, has suffered particularly in this process, with three unfilled seats and no judge confirmed for the court since 2006.
Politicization has also crept into the process for approving district court nominees. In the 101st Congress in 1989 and 1990, 96 percent of the district court nominees picked by President George H. W. Bush were confirmed, and the confirmation process took on average just 77 days. Twenty years later, only 56 percent of President Obama’s nominees were confirmed and the process took on average 174 days.
During the Obama years, nominees presenting no ideological threat have been held up in the Republicans’ campaign of partisan attack and obstruction — even against trial judges whose decisions are rarely ideological and can be appealed.
The holdups have cost Americans dearly — in justice delayed (it now generally takes two years to get a federal civil trial) and justice denied. It is time to adopt a more efficient, less political approach to district court confirmations. The courts must be brought to full strength so they can meet the demands for justice. The next president and the new Senate should make reforming the confirmation process a paramount priority.
Original article on The New York Times