WASHINGTON ― Senate Republicans are confirming federal judges at the slowest rate in more than 60 years, fueling a “politically motivated vacancy crisis” in the nation’s courts, according to an analysis released Thursday by Alliance for Justice.
The report, Politics over Justice: Judicial Selection in the 114th Congress, looks at the pace of judicial confirmations since Republicans took control of the Senate in January. GOP leaders have only let six of President Barack Obama’s judicial picks get confirmation votes this year. For context: when Democrats controlled the Senate during President George W. Bush’s seventh year in office, they had confirmed 29 of his judicial nominees by this point.
Six confirmations is the slowest single-year pace since the Senate confirmed a total of nine judges in 1953, the report found.
The kicker is that when each of Obama’s nominees finally did get a vote, they were confirmed unanimously ― meaning they had strong bipartisan support all along.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he's never seen such a dragged-out confirmation process in his 31 years in Congress.
"It's just appalling," Schumer said on a call with reporters. "It's deliberate and it has a political purpose. And to me, I'll give it a strong word: it's obnoxious."
As confirmations have slowed, federal courts have been feeling the pain. Vacancies have gone up from 43 to 67 this year. The number of judicial emergencies -- when a district judge has more than 600 cases, or has between 43o to 600 cases for more than 18 months -- has increased by 158 percent, from 12 to 31.
The GOP calculation is that Obama will be gone after 2016, at which point a Republican may end up in the White House and can start funneling Republican nominees through the Senate. Hold out until then, and you can start filling out the judiciary with GOP-backed judges. These are lifetime appointments, after all.
The problem with that tactic is that the president -- any president -- has a constitutional duty to fill vacancies in courts, and the Senate has a constitutional duty to consider and vote on a president's judicial picks. When that doesn't happen, court seats go unfilled, cases get backed up and justice is delayed for people going before the courts.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), dismissed a question about the pace of confirmations and said Alliance for Justice has a partisan agenda. The group is a left-leaning association of more than 100 organizations focused on the judiciary.
"I don’t think you can call them advocates for a filled out judiciary," Stewart said in an email. "They are liberal partisans. Let’s be clear."
But the numbers speak for themselves. When comparing Obama with his White House predecessors, in terms of the number of judges confirmed in their last two years in office, the current Senate isn't even close to keeping pace.
There's little that Democrats, as the minority, can do to speed up the process. Schumer said Democrats have to come up with ways to "use leverage" to get Republicans moving on the 32 judicial nominees pending right now.
"We have to say, 'We don't do this, this and this until we get more judges,'" he said. "That's something I'm looking at."