Republican Obstruction Creates New Bamboo Ceiling for Asian American Judicial Nominees

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month--a time to celebrate the accomplishments of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in our nation, including the growing number of AAPI federal judges.

In January 2009, there were only eight AAPIs in lifetime, federal judgeships throughout the country--out of 870 potential positions. There had not been an AAPI judge on a U.S. Court of Appeals--the level just below the Supreme Court--in almost five years.

Today, there are 25 AAPI federal judges, including four at the Court of Appeals level. In fact, President Obama has appointed more AAPI federal judges than all presidents in history combined, and the nine AAPI women he has appointed is even more remarkable considering there were only two prior to 2009.

While this is important progress, Senate Republicans are obstructing any further advancement by delaying consideration of President Obama's five distinguished AAPI nominees--all women--to lifetime federal judgeships.

  • Jennifer Choe Groves was nominated to the U.S. Court of International Trade last July. She would be the first AAPI to serve on this Court, and the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved her nomination in early April. However, 11 judicial nominees have been waiting for a Senate confirmation vote longer than her--one since February 2015--and since Senate Republicans are confirming barely one judicial nominee per month, it's unclear whether they will allow her nomination to move forward or simply run out the clock. This, despite the fact that the U.S. Court of International Trade is, by law, a bipartisan court, and Ms. Groves is a Republican. That's right--Republican obstruction is so extreme that it is even blocking the confirmation of the former Secretary of the Republican National Lawyers Association.

But at least Ms. Groves has received a hearing.

  • Judge Lucy Koh has been nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (again, the level just below the Supreme Court). She would be just the second AAPI woman to serve as a circuit judge in our nation's history. In June 2010, the Senate unanimously confirmed her to serve as a district judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by a vote of 90-0, but Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley has not yet scheduled a hearing on her nomination.

  • Karen Gren Scholer has been nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas and would be the first AAPI lifetime federal judge to serve in the Fifth Circuit, which covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn supports her nomination, and he and Senator Ted Cruz even recommended her to the White House for consideration. Ms. Scholer also has been somewhat active in Texas Republican politics, including service in 2000 on the Texas Finance Committee for the George W. Bush Exploratory Committee, but she has been unable to receive a hearing yet, either.
  • Judge Florence Pan has been nominated for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and would be the first AAPI female lifetime federal judge to serve there. In May 2009, the Senate unanimously confirmed her to serve as an Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. In fairness, her nomination has only been pending a month, but the Senate Judiciary Committee would have to pick up its pace dramatically to consider her nomination.
  • Regina Rodriguez has been nominated for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado and would be the first AAPI lifetime federal judge to serve in the Tenth Circuit, which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. Ms. Rodriguez was one of three candidates to be recommended by both Democratic Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Republican Colorado Senator Cory Gardner. She was nominated on the same day as Judge Pan, in late April.
  • The Senate can--and should--consider all five of these nominees without further delay. Not just because it's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month or because they would increase the number of AAPI lifetime federal judges by 20%. Of course, it would be nice to continue enhancing the diversity of our federal judiciary, but more fundamentally, our system of justice demands it.

    Since Republicans took control of the Senate in January 2015, judicial vacancies have more than doubled, from 43 to 87. It's almost cliché to say that "justice delayed is justice denied," but empty courtrooms mean that everyone must needlessly wait--from criminal defendants to victims of crime, from individuals seeking to enforce their civil rights to small businesses and large corporations.

    The Senate has confirmed only 18 judicial nominees over the past 17 months--a pace so slow it hasn't been seen in decades--while 55 nominees remain pending, subject to Republican obstruction and delay.

    This month, we celebrate that 5 of these 55 pending nominees are AAPI, but they deserve better. And our nation deserves better.