WASHINGTON -- Something rare happened Monday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) let a judicial nominee get a vote: Waverly Crenshaw, a Tennessee district court nominee.
It's been two months since Republicans confirmed a judge. If anybody should have been confirmed by now, it's Crenshaw. Nobody opposed him -- he was confirmed 92 to 0. Both of his GOP senators strongly supported him. The court seat he's filling has become so overloaded with cases that it's become a judicial emergency. Yet Crenshaw, who unanimously cleared the Judiciary Committee nine months ago, had to wait almost a year and a half for a vote.
If it takes this long to confirm a judge that Republicans actually like, things don't look good for President Barack Obama's other court picks. Never mind the ongoing GOP blockade against his Supreme Court nominee; there are 31 other judicial nominees waiting for action in the Judiciary Committee and 14 more ready to be confirmed right now. None are scheduled for votes. Republicans are already confirming judges at the slowest pace in more than 50 years -- and the Senate tends to slow down confirmations as it gets closer to November in presidential election years.
Crenshaw could be it for Obama.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart wouldn't say when, or if, the Senate will vote to confirm the next judicial nominees on the list.
"I don’t have any new announcements yet," he said.
The delays are part of a broader GOP strategy to punt judicial confirmations to next year, when a Republican might be in the White House and nominate people they like better. Crenshaw is only the 17th judge who has been confirmed since the GOP became the Senate majority in January 2015. By contrast, in the final two years of President George W. Bush's term, Democrats controlled the Senate and had confirmed 68 judicial nominees by this point.
Court vacancies have been ticking up in the meantime. They're at 78 now, and 34 of them are emergencies. When court seats go unfilled, people's cases can get delayed for years and judges struggle with burnout.
There could be a little more movement before Obama leaves the Oval Office. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told a Politico reporter Monday evening that he "would be surprised if [Crenshaw] is the last one of the year."
But if confirmations do hit a wall until 2017, or come close to it, it's not just Obama's problem. There are GOP senators with courts in their states that desperately need vacancies filled, and who may not get them anytime soon, despite the fact that their party controls the Senate.
Take Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch. Last week, they enthusiastically endorsed Obama's nomination of David Nye to the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho. That court has two seats on it, one of which is vacant and a judicial emergency. It also has a heavy enough workload that it should have a third judgeship added to it, according to the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy-making arm of the federal court system. So this court, if it's fully functioning, should have three judges on it.
But Nye is at the bottom of the list in the Judiciary Committee. He still has to get a hearing scheduled, have a hearing, go through a round of follow-up questions from the hearing, get voted out, get scheduled for a confirmation vote and then have a confirmation vote. There's time to get through all of that between now and the end of the year, but if Republicans plan to move judges in order -- and at the pace Crenshaw moved -- Nye won't get a vote until 2017 or even early 2018. That leaves the Idaho court with one judge until then.
Crapo and Risch have already met with McConnell and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to try to get the process moving.
"It's doable," Risch told The Spokesman-Review on Monday. "Is it going to happen? You know, that's like trying to say who's going to be president of the United States these days."
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in judicial confirmations, wasn't optimistic about the GOP picking up the pace.
"I think they're just going to run out the clock this year, in the hope that Republicans will win the White House," Tobias said. "That will leave the next president with 100 vacancies to fill and 40 to 50 emergencies."
But what if Hillary Clinton wins? Don't Republicans run the risk of her putting forward more liberal nominees than Obama?
"Hillary should just do whatever she wants to do," he said.