WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats made it a lot easier for President Barack Obama to get his judicial nominees confirmed when they nixed the filibuster against most nominees last fall -- a move that came in response to Republicans using the filibuster to block many of Obama's picks for political reasons.
But so far, removing that procedural hurdle hasn't changed much in the Senate, where there hasn't been a single vote on a district court nominee since December.
In fact, the only judicial nominee confirmed so far in 2014 has been Robert Wilkins, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit whom Republicans blocked for months and who only got through after filibuster reform. That leaves 32 judicial nominees who are ready and waiting for a confirmation vote, but going nowhere.
So what's the problem? Republicans are refusing to give consent to let nominees get their votes. In a less partisan environment, both parties typically would give "unanimous consent" to let a batch of nominees receive votes, with little fanfare. But with Republicans still simmering over the Senate rules change, they're using other tactics to prevent nominations from advancing.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said as much when he recently objected to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) requesting consent to let a bloc of nominees get a vote.
"The Democratic majority changed the rules of the Senate in a way that creates a Senate without rules," Alexander said. "So until I understand better how a United States senator is supposed to operate in a Senate without rules, I object."
Reid can still schedule votes for nominees without the consent of Republicans, but it would be extremely time-consuming, requiring a full day to pass before even beginning debate and then anywhere from two to 30 hours for each nominee, per Senate rules. With unanimous consent, a nominee can be voted on in minutes.
A senior Senate Democratic aide said party leaders are trying to figure out a way to work together to let some judicial nominees through. But that isn't likely to happen until at least Feb. 24, when the Senate returns from a recess and begins a new work period. Even then, it could get messy.
"Doubt you'll see any movement before recess," said the aide. "This could be the next big fight in the next work period."
And none of this factors in other delays going on in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans like Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) are even refusing to let nominees whom they previously endorsed advance.
In the meantime, the federal judiciary is at a breaking point. There are now 96 judicial vacancies around the country, many of which are designated "judicial emergencies" as caseloads surge at the short-handed courts.
To give some perspective: One nominee currently waiting for a vote, John Owens, would fill a 9th Circuit appeals court seat that's been vacant for more than 3,325 days, according to data compiled by the Alliance for Justice. Another nominee, Beth Freeman, would fill a district court seat in the Northern District of California that's been empty for more than 860 days.
"Over the last year, the number of vacancies has hovered around 90 because obstruction in Congress has led to filibuster after filibuster of qualified nominees," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said last month. "We must not take for granted that we have the greatest justice system in the world, and ensuring this continues requires the Senate to fulfill its constitutional duty of advice and consent."
CLARIFICATION: Language in this story has been changed to better explain how long it will take to move judicial nominees if Republican senators decline to give "unanimous consent" to letting the nominees receive a vote.
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