By Sally J. Kenney
Monday, January 20, 2014
The Senate's anti-filibuster vote in November does not guarantee that Obama will be able to appoint well-qualified women and minority men to the bench. Obstructionists are still up to their tricks and every bit of citizen involvement is needed.
Credit: Joe Gratz on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)--It may be a new year, but it's not yet a new era for advocates of a diverse and representative judiciary that includes women. The anti-filibuster vote in the Senate in November helped, but obstructionists still have plenty of ways to block appointments.
Many senators who demanded that all well-qualified nominees receive an up-or-down vote in the Senate during the Bush administration are still finding ways to preserve judicial vacancies.
Some refuse to attend hearings. Others refuse to cooperate with the president in nominating judges from their state. Or senators from the state of residence of a federal judicial nominee refuse to turn in blue slips containing their opinions of the nominee, thereby preventing nominees from receiving a hearing at all. White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler declared the blue-slip rule for judges more problematic than the filibuster, in part because it is a silent, unaccountable veto.
With President Barack Obama in his second term, it is unlikely we will get a champion like this again soon, so it's imperative we focus on what's going on and act fast to clear the logjam.
To review, in November the Senate changed its rule on cloture, lowering the 60-vote "supermajority" required to confirm a judicial nominee to a simple majority. That brought a break in the blockade against judicial appointments.
On the heels of that vote, the U.S. Senate voted in December to confirm two well-qualified women to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Patricia Millett, and Nina Pillard. The Senate would not have confirmed either Millett or Pillard if they had needed 60 votes. On Jan. 13, the Senate finally confirmed a third nominee, Judge Robert Wilkins, an African American and the first nominee to come from the D.C. District Court.
These three judges are just a tiny fraction of the solution.
Ninety-three vacancies remain on the federal district and appellate courts. The problem is especially acute in district courts, where the vacancy rate has reached a level the Congressional Research Service has called historically high.
The number of vacancies considered to be "judicial emergencies" has risen by 100 percent since 2008, meaning that millions of people live in a judicial emergency jurisdiction and will not have the issues they care about heard in a timely manner.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently stated, "In the history of the Republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations. Half of them have occurred during the Obama administration--during the last four and a half years. These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote."
Obama has nominated women to the federal bench at twice the rate of his predecessor and more than any previous president. If we want to move beyond the plateau of 30 percent of women in the federal judiciary we must act to break the logjam.
Federal judges make decisions that affect our lives, from hearing cases impacting the environment, health care, Social Security benefits and immigration to having the final say in determining who we can marry, whether our speech is protected or how we can vote. Federal judges are appointed for life and their decisions have an impact long after the president who appointed them leaves office.
Few people, however, are paying attention to judicial appointments. That's a pity but it's also a chance for any individuals and groups who do engage to exert enormous sway with senators. Jump in!
Sally J. Kenney is the Newcomb College endowed chair, professor of political science and executive director of the Newcomb College Institute at Tulane University. She is the author of "Gender and Justice: Why Women in the Judiciary Really Matter."
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