Senate delays on nominees hurts U.S. justice system

Published Dec. 28, 2012

The presidency comes with certain powers, including making nominations to the federal judiciary. The U.S. Senate is given the power of "advice and consent" to confirm or reject the president's choices, but the process was never intended as a tool to obstruct the very operation of justice. That is what irresponsible Republican Senate leaders are doing by stalling the confirmation votes for judicial nominees, including one in Florida's Middle District for close to a year. What is needed is an up-or-down vote.

The record speaks for itself. President Barack Obama has had fewer nominations confirmed than his last two predecessors. Obama has had 173 confirmed during his first term, compared with 205 for George W. Bush and 200 for Bill Clinton. When Obama came into office there were 55 vacancies on the nation's federal district and circuit courts. Now there are 73 vacancies, with dozens considered "judicial emergencies," meaning caseloads are already too high to be reasonably handled.

This larger problem can be seen in Florida's Middle District. There are two vacancies out of 15 judges for a jurisdiction that stretches from the Tampa Bay region to Jacksonville and south to Fort Myers. Both vacancies have been designated "judicial emergencies." But that hasn't lit any kind of fire under GOP Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Senate filibuster rules allow the minority party to hold up nominations indefinitely, and McConnell has been abusing this power — a tactic that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should modify with rule changes at the start of the new Congress.

One of the Middle District's seats has had a nominee on deck since February. Judge Brian Davis has been a Jacksonville circuit judge with an excellent record for nearly two decades. He was found to be "well-qualified" for a federal judgeship by the American Bar Association. The Davis nomination has been opposed by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, due to race-related statements Davis made more than 15 years ago. Still, Davis was approved by the committee by a vote of 10-7.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Polster Chappell of Fort Myers, who has served in that capacity for nearly 10 years, was tapped for the other seat in June. Both have the bipartisan support of Florida's two U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, but have yet to receive a vote on the Senate floor.

Most of the nominees awaiting a Senate floor vote are qualified, nonideological choices who would easily win confirmation by wide bipartisan margins if McConnell would only allow the process to work as intended. McConnell is damaging our system of justice by putting the courts in a partisan vise, in which slowing judicial confirmations is counted as a victory for his party. It's true that both sides have been guilty of this. But the game has now reached new heights and is threatening the workings of the courts and dissuading top legal professionals from seeking judicial seats. Every qualified nominee deserves an up-or-down vote within a reasonable period of time. It is the duty of all senators to set aside partisanship to make that happen.