Sonia Sotomayor made history Thursday by becoming the first Hispanic justice and only the third woman to join the U.S. Supreme Court. Her 17 years of judicial experience and mainstream record made Sotomayor an exemplary choice, and it's unfortunate more Republican senators did not follow Florida Sen. Mel Martinez in supporting the nomination because they couldn't see past party politics and their allegiance to the National Rifle Association. Their reluctance on such a qualified nominee suggests more battles over judicial appointments are to come even as some courts critically need additional judges.
Partisan fights over judges have become the norm since Robert Bork's 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court failed because of his conservative legal views. The interest groups on the political left and right have escalated the political rhetoric, with each side seeing a friendly judiciary as key to pursuing their agenda. But most cases that come before district and even appellate-level federal judges are strictly apply-the-law cases where a judge's political leanings have no bearing on the outcome.
Senators know that, but they can't seem to break the habit created by years of partisan delaying tactics. President Barack Obama is fortunate that his party has a solid majority in the Senate, meaning despite partisan posturing, well-qualified judicial nominees should have no trouble getting confirmed. But nothing is easy within the Byzantine rules of the U.S. Senate, where individual senators can influence the pace of confirmations.
There are 85 judicial vacancies at the appellate and district court levels. Obama has so far nominated nine judges and only three of those are ready for a Senate vote, but already Republicans are holding them up.
With Sotomayor's confirmation, the administration needs to push the Senate for votes on other Obama nominees. The president also needs to speed up nominations for desperately short-staffed courts. Twenty-five judicial vacancies, including two in Florida, are considered emergencies due to high caseloads or the length of the vacancy.
Yes, the Obama administration has a lot going on with health care reform, the economy and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But filling the nation's federal courts with qualified judges is also a priority. Obama's choice of Sotomayor suggests he has an eye for highly qualified people ready to serve on the bench. Now the federal court system just needs more of them.