With Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stalling every nominee on the Senate floor, judicial confirmations have been hard to come by in 2015. Only four judges have been confirmed, and even nominees selected by their own Republican senators have suffered from McConnell’s obstruction.
On May 21, when the Senate doubled its grand total of judicial confirmations from two to four, it did so by unanimously confirming two district court judges who each endured a nearly three-month wait on the Senate calendar.
Such delay is never justified, particularly for uncontroversial consensus nominees. The Senate has a constitutional obligation to confirm judges, and long delays can hamper the administration of justice and keep everyday Americans locked out of court.
Four district court nominees voted out of the Judiciary Committee today are especially compelling examples of this point, as they’ve been nominated to some of the most overburdened courts in the country.
Dale Drozd would fill a longstanding judicial emergency (the vacancy is nearly 1000 days old) in the Eastern District of California, where he currently serves as a Magistrate Judge. At his confirmation hearing, Drozd testified about the district’s crushing caseload that has persisted for more than a decade. He said that the court was in a “crisis situation” with judges effectively “maxed out.” The overwhelming caseload, Drozd said, “has tremendous impact on our ability to deliver justice within our district.”
EDCA Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill echoed that same concern when the Wall Street Journal asked him about growing caseloads and long delays in the district. “Over the years I’ve received several letters from people indicating, ‘Even if I win this case now, my business has failed because of the delay. How is this justice?’” he said. “And the simple answer, which I cannot give them, is this: It is not justice. We know it.”
Indeed, Judge Drozd’s confirmation would only begin to solve the district’s problems. The non-partisan Judicial Conference of the United States found that caseloads would remain too high even if every vacancy were filled, and recommended Congress double the number of EDCA judgeships from six to 12.
In the Western District of New York, multiple vacancies in Buffalo leave the city without a single active federal judge for the first time in over half a century. Lawrence Vilardo, voted out of committee today, would fill one of them. Despite the willingness of some senior judges to continue taking cases, Buffalo is currently experiencing one of the nation’s worst backlogs, with civil cases taking an average of five years to go to trial. As reported in The Buffalo News, 14 percent of the civil cases in the Western District are more than three years old, and the district’s 744 new cases per judge last year place it in the top 10 of federal districts nationwide.
Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott, who sits in Buffalo, just announced that he is stepping down from active status, but will continue to hear cases because the court’s workload will not permit him to retire. “I could have completely retired,” he told The Buffalo News, “but I know the caseload here. Quite frankly, I don’t want to burden the other magistrate judges with my caseload.”
The other two New York nominees, LaShann DeArcy Hall and Ann Donnelly, are both nominated to the Eastern District, and have been waiting since last November to fill judicial emergencies.
On Mitch McConnell’s watch, the number of judicial vacancies, including those designated as judicial emergencies, has steadily grown over the last five months. But with the four nominees voted out of committee today (and the three pending nominees they join on the Senate floor), McConnell and the Republican majority have an opportunity to do the right thing: confirm them now.