It's Time for the Senate to Avoid the Judicial Cliff, Too

In addition to addressing the impending fiscal cliff, Congress also needs to deal with the judicial cliff.

When the Senate took a break for the election, it left 19 of President Barack Obama's nominees to district courts and circuit courts of appeal cooling their heels on the Senate floor waiting for final votes.

They're still there. So is the shortage of federal judges that is doing great harm to justice in America.

Congress comes back for its lame-duck session today and we now know who the president will be for the next four years. The election is over. President Obama won. There is no chance that a President Romney will be able to ask these men and women to step aside in order to put his own folks in. The excuses for inaction are gone.

There is no legitimate reason to delay votes on these nominees any longer. Almost all of the 19 were sent forward to the full Senate by the committee unanimously or with token opposition. These are mainstream candidates, virtually all of whom have broad bipartisan support.

This group is dealing with the same endless delays that every other nominee has faced since President Obama took office. Those currently being held hostage to obstructionist tactics have been waiting an average of 240 days from the day they were first nominated. Even Robert Bacharach, who is up for a seat on the Tenth Circuit, has been waiting for 295 days, in spite of the fact that he is avidly supported by the conservative Republican senators from his home state of Oklahoma.

Importantly, 10 of the nominees will fill seats that the federal judiciary itself calls "judicial emergencies." These are openings on the federal bench that have been vacant so long, or are in areas with so few judges, that justice is not being done and the constitutional rights of Americans to a functioning legal system are being damaged.

The shortages on the federal bench are very real, and every day that we wait it gets worse. As retired Judge Timothy Lewis, a George H.W. Bush appointee, said earlier this year:

Federal judges have reported being forced to handle criminal caseloads more than double what they confronted two years ago. This is limiting access people have to the judicial system, often resulting in exasperating delays.... Senate inaction is compromising the judiciary's constitutional responsibility to protect and preserve our liberties.

Enough is enough. It's time for a vote on all of these nominees so that our federal courts can have enough judges to do the hard work of American justice.

The Senate has a lot on its plate, but that is no excuse for inaction. This need not be a time consuming process. It can be accomplished by unanimous consent in five minutes. And once that's done, it's time to look forward to how judicial nominees will be handled for the next four years.

The Republican strategy of endless, mindless obstruction of every single judicial appointment, regardless of their merits, must end. Our judicial system in in crisis, a problem made worse by the current misuse of Senate rules that has contorted the filibuster into a weapon of indiscriminate mass destruction -- a legislative dirty bomb. Reforms to the process will be essential if the country is going to move forward to heal the judicial system, but also to address a host of other national problems that are crying out for action.

Modifications to Senate procedures must be the first thing on the agenda in January when the new Congress convenes. But in the meantime, the only thing preventing 19 highly qualified men and women from serving the cause of justice from the federal bench is a seemingly endless appetite for rank partisanship.

The decisions about avoiding the fiscal cliff may be complex, but the way to avoid the judicial cliff is not. It's time for the Senate to come together and in one simple vote set aside the rancor of the past and fulfill its constitutional obligation to ensure justice for all Americans.

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Information about the judicial nominations process and nominees can be found here.