Playing Politics with the Courts

Americans rely on having a fair and functioning judicial system that’s there for us when we need it. The courtroom is one place where we can go, no matter who we are, and know we’ll have a fair hearing — no matter whom we’re up against. But for our judicial system to function, the Senate must do its job and confirm our judges.

Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have decided to use judicial nominees as pawns in their political games, delaying votes on even uncontroversial nominees for months on end. Their unprecedented obstructionism hasn’t just hurt the image of Congress, which has a 7-percent approval rating — it’s damaged the American justice system. Roughly one in 10 seats on the federal courts today is vacant. This doesn’t just mean greater workloads for sitting judges. It means greater delays for Americans seeking their day in court.

Because federal law requires criminal cases to be given precedence, people filing civil claims — including consumer fraud, copyright infringement, and civil rights complaints — must wait for many months or even years to get their case heard.

(Jimmy Emerson / Flickr)

(Jimmy Emerson / Flickr)

The Senate has the means to fix this crisis. President Barack Obama has nominated many highly qualified, well-respected nominees who have bipartisan support. Those who have actually been allowed Senate votes have been approved by strong, bipartisan majorities, frequently even getting unanimous approval. But too few have been allowed votes, and those who did get them were made to wait far too long.

At this point in George W. Bush’s presidency, the average judicial nominee waited less than a month for a vote from the full Senate after being approved by the Judiciary Committee. Under Obama, the average wait time is more than three months.

The Senate GOP’s commitment to gridlock at all costs was made clear in February when they forced Democrats to break a filibuster on Judge Adalberto Jordan, a widely respected nominee to fill a long-vacant seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Judge Jordan’s nomination was historic — he would be the first Cuban-American to sit on the court, which has jurisdiction over the United States’ largest Cuban-American population. He had the support of Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, himself a Cuban-American, who called Jordan “an integral part of my community” and urged his fellow Senators to confirm him “in an overwhelming and bipartisan fashion.” Every Republican and every Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in his favor.

Yet Republicans in the Senate filibustered Jordan’s nomination for four months, refusing to allow a yes-or-no vote on his confirmation. Finally, in February, Senate Democrats voted to break the filibuster, only to have the final vote on Judge Jordan delayed for another two days by a single senator, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who took his nomination hostage to promote an entirely unrelated policy priority. At last, Judge Jordan was confirmed with a 94-5 vote. The point, for the GOP, was gridlock, not any objection to the nominee.

Senate Republicans have repeated this charade over and over again — at the expense of the courts and the people who rely on them. It’s no wonder that Congress’s approval rating is at a record low, when we can’t even trust the Senate to do one of its most basic tasks.

We need to tell our senators that the courts matter, and that it’s their job to keep them running.

Marge Baker is executive vice president of People For the American Way. www.pfaw.org
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