The partisan politics of Washington is taking a serious toll on the federal judiciary. Almost one in eight judgeships is vacant, resulting in delays in some areas of the country — including parts of Florida — where years can go by before civil litigants get their day in court. That brings to mind the old axiom that justice delayed is justice denied.
But Senate Republicans seem unconcerned about their abdication of responsibility, apparently more interested in exacting payback for delays inflicted on some of President George W. Bush's nominees and further undermining the Democratic administration. They have set a new standard for using procedural moves to block or delay votes on President Barack Obama's nominees.
There are currently 104 vacancies out of 876 federal judgeships, with 44 nominations pending. Republicans complain that Obama isn't nominating judges fast enough. But their caucus keeps dragging its feet on the nominees already put forward. There is no reason to send nominations to the Senate that will sit for months, facing a wall of Republican obstruction. It is too disruptive to careers to be put in this kind of limbo.
At this point in Bush's presidency, 60.6 percent of his judicial nominees had been confirmed. President Bill Clinton's rate was 68.4 percent. But so far, even though the Democrats enjoy a wide majority in the Senate, only 48.2 percent of Obama's judicial nominees have been confirmed.
And it is taking longer for confirmations to occur. In the first Congress of the Bush presidency it took about 26 days to confirm circuit court nominees after being reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and 25 days to confirm district court nominees. Under this Congress, it has taken on average 148 days to confirm circuit court nominees and 69 days to confirm district court nominees.
Republicans are slow-walking even noncontroversial nominees. They are putting holds on judicial nominees as a matter of course, even if they don't have any objection to a nominee's qualifications or ideology. When votes are allowed because Republicans finally agree or Democrats take a cloture vote to end debate (which eats up 30 hours of Senate time for each nominee), the nomination is typically approved unanimously. Out of the 41 confirmation votes for circuit and district judgeships, all but six were unanimous.
This is not how things were when Bush was president and the Senate was controlled by Democrats. Then, judicial vacancies were reduced from more than 10 percent to less than 4 percent. Now, the vacancies are back over 10 percent. Republicans are holding the federal courts hostage to political gamesmanship; businesses and taxpayers seeking their day in court are the losers.