Nearly one in nine federal judgeships are currently vacant, a vacancy rate that is leaving many courts barely able to function. Indeed, the problem has become so severe that Republican Chief Justice John Roberts used his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary to call upon the Senate to end this logjam:
Over many years, however, a persistent problem has developed in the process of filling judicial vacancies. Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes. This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts. Sitting judges in those districts have been burdened with extraordinary caseloads. I am heartened that the Senate recently filled a number of district and circuit court vacancies, including one in the Eastern District of California, one of the most severely burdened districts. There remains, however, an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.
Roberts’ pox-on-both-your-houses comparison between the two political parties is unfortunate, because it obscures the very partisan explanation for the present vacancy crisis.
While Senate Democrats did unsuccessfully attempt to block a handful of President Bush’s most radical nominees — including one woman who compared liberalism to “slavery” and Social Security to a “socialist revolution,” and another who took thousands of dollars worth of campaign contributions from Enron and then wrote a key opinion reducing Enron’s taxes by $15 million when she sat on the Texas Supreme Court — neither political party has ever waged the sustained and indiscriminate campaign of obstruction the Senate GOP is presently waging against President Obama’s judges. As a result of this unprecedented campaign, Obama has the lowest judicial confirmation rate of any recent president:
Nevertheless, the Chief Justice’s call for an end to Senate obstruction of judges is welcome. In 1997, when Republican Chief Justice William Rehnquist criticized the Republican-controlled Senate for blocking President Clinton’s nominees, his rebuke shamed the Senate into nearly doubling its confirmation rate the next year. Hopefully, Roberts’ rebuke will yield a similar response.