The Senate confirmed its first appeals court judge of the year last night, unanimously approving Kara Farnandez Stoll for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Stoll waited more than two months on the Senate floor for a vote, enduring needless delay that has become the norm under Republican leadership. More than six months into 2015, the Senate has confirmed only five judges, and four of them were district court nominees selected and recommended by their own Republican senators. By comparison, during the penultimate year of President George W. Bush’s administration in 2007, Senate Democrats had confirmed 25 judges by July 9.
In floor speeches before the vote yesterday, Senate Democrats hammered Republicans for the confirmation slowdown. Minority Leader Harry Reid said that confirming only one circuit court nominee so far is an “embarrassment,” and accused Senate Republicans of “failing in their basic constitutional responsibility to provide advise and consent” on judges. “The Republican Leader [Mitch McConnell] and his party are on pace to confirm the fewest judicial nominations in half a century,” Reid noted. It’s actually even worse: the Senate hasn’t confirmed 10 or fewer judges since 1953.
In response, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley lamely defended the pace of confirmations in written remarks, asserting that “there shouldn’t be any complaining about following the same standard we did in 2007.” Grassley supported his view with three well-worn talking points that do not survive even the most cursory review. Yet they are worth refuting here, if only because they are commonly given to reporters covering Senate confirmations. It’s time to set the record straight once and for all.
Let’s take each point in turn.
- Grassley’s first argument is based on a meaningless comparison of raw confirmation totals. He pointed out that President Obama has had 312 judges confirmed, while at this same point in 2007 President Bush had only 279. “That’s 33 more judicial nominees confirmed” for Obama, Grassley said, “[s]o, this president and his judicial nominees are being treated as fairly, if not more fairly, than the last president.” The problem is that Obama’s higher confirmations are explained by the higher number of judicial vacancies he has had to fill, not by preferential treatment in the Senate. At this point in their respective presidencies, Obama has faced 47 more vacancies than did Bush, which means that, with only 33 more confirmed, Obama’s confirmations are actually falling behind.
- Next, Grassley defended his own work as chairman, saying “[w]e’re . . . moving judicial nominees in [the Judiciary] Committee at about the same pace as we did at this point in President Bush’s presidency.” On this point, Grassley’s sleight of hand is to include both executive and judicial nominees in his numbers. But when the focus is on judges, a discrepancy appears: only 13 judicial nominees have had hearings so far this year, while at this point in 2007 Democratic Chairman Patrick Leahy had convened hearings for 17 nominees. And lest anyone think the committee has been overly burdened with executive nominees, recall that Grassley has gone weeks without a confirmation hearing, and in one instance called a hearing with only two judicial nominees on the witness list.
- Third, Grassley invoked his own fuzzy math argument, claiming credit for the 11 district court judges that Senate Democrats voted out of committee and confirmed during the lame duck session at the end of last year. He claims that, per Senate tradition, these nominees should have been held for confirmation votes under the new Senate majority. He again pointed to confirmations in 2007: “In 2006, the Senate returned 13 judicial nominees to the President. Those nominees were then re-nominated in 2007, and confirmed in the new Congress. Had Democrats followed standard Senate practice, we would’ve voted on those 11 nominees at the beginning of this year[.]”
But what Grassley refers to as “standard Senate practice” was in fact nothing more than the obstruction of a single Republican senator. At the end of 2006, Republican Senator Sam Brownback blocked a vote on district court nominee Janet Neff because she once attended, as a guest of longtime neighbors, a same-sex civil commitment ceremony. As The New York Times reported at the time, Brownback’s objection, not “Senate practice,” was the only reason nominees were returned to the president: “Judge Neff’s nomination was included in a package of more than a dozen nominees whose confirmation had been agreed upon by both Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Brownback’s objections held up the whole roster of nominees.”
And that’s it. These are the best reasons Republicans can muster to explain why, under their watch, judicial confirmations are headed toward historical lows. It’s obvious that Senate Republicans are intentionally keeping our federal courts understaffed, delaying justice for Americans all across the country, to preserve as many vacancies as possible for what they hope is a future Republican president. Their talking points to the contrary are mere pretext to disguise a purely partisan agenda, and they should be called on it.