By Kyle Barry
AFJ Director of Justice Programs
Apparently the looming July 4th recess isn’t enough for Chuck Grassley to schedule a long-overdue judicial confirmation hearing. Instead, the Judiciary Committee Chairman appears to be guaranteeing at least three consecutive weeks without a confirmation hearing. Such needless delay, so clearly motivated by a partisan desire to obstruct the president’s judicial nominees, is never acceptable. But there is a more specific reason for concern: two pending nominees—Mary Barzee Flores for the Southern District of Florida, and Julien Neals for the District of New Jersey—have already waited four months for a hearing, and both are nominated to critical “judicial emergencies” in their home states.
Indeed, Florida and New Jersey are two of the states hit especially hard by the great confirmation slowdown of 2015. The Senate has confirmed only four judges this year; as a result, vacancies nationwide have increased from 43 to 59, and judicial emergencies—the official designation for courts that need more judges to handle their current caseload—have more than doubled, from 12 to 27. New Jersey alone has four new vacancies in 2015 (tied with New York for the most in any state) and all of them are judicial emergencies. There are three pending New Jersey nominees waiting for a hearing, including two (Neals and John Vasquez) nominated before April.
In Florida, Flores has been pending since February to fill a judicial emergency that is more than a year old. Florida also got its second judicial emergency this month when a Middle District seat opened up, and a future Northern District vacancy has been announced for December. With the new vacancies this year, Florida and New Jersey have become two of just six states with multiple judicial emergencies. And yet, Sen. Grassley refuses to take one simple step to address this growing problem: quickly process pending nominees through committee so they can be confirmed.
Flores’ nomination also reflects a troubling pattern of obstruction that has emerged under Republican leadership, one in which Republican senators publicly endorse a nominee from their home state, but then do virtually nothing to get them confirmed. We’ve seen this on the Senate floor where nominees recommended and ostensibly supported by powerful Republican senators like President pro tempore Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, were forced to wait months for what was ultimately a unanimous confirmation vote.
In the Judiciary Committee, this obstruction has taken a very specific form for nominees, like Flores, from states with one Republican and one Democratic senator. What’s happening with Flores now is precisely what happened—and continues to happen—with Third Circuit nominee L. Felipe Restrepo.
President Obama nominated Restrepo last November based on the joint recommendation of Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Casey then quickly returned his “blue slip” to the Judiciary Committee, signaling that he endorsed the nomination and that Chairman Grassley could move forward with a hearing. But Toomey did not follow suit. While he continued to express public support for Restrepo, he withheld his blue slip for over six months, enabling Grassley to delay Restrepo’s hearing under the pretext of completing a “thorough background investigation.” Toomey and Grassley finally buckled under intense public pressure, and Restrepo had a hearing on June 10. But nothing has happened since, and now Toomey looks unwilling to demand that Grassley and the other committee Republicans vote Restrepo onto the Senate floor.
Similarly, Flores was recommended by Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, and Nelson returned his blue slip soon after her nomination. Yet four months later, and despite mounting calls to fill the judicial emergencies in Florida, Rubio has done nothing to ensure that his fellow-Republicans actually move Flores toward confirmation.
With all these hearing delays, Grassley has fallen behind even his own announced pace for processing nominees. Grassley has held himself to “the Leahy standard in 2007,” when Senator Patrick Leahy was the committee chairman, and Democrats controlled the Senate under President George W. Bush. But at this point in 2007, Senator Leahy had convened five confirmation hearings for 17 judicial nominees, while only 13 nominees have had hearings this year. This is in addition to the enormous disparity on confirmations—four this year compared to 21 by the end of June in 2007.
The American people know better than to countenance this sort of form-over-substance support for judicial nominees we’ve seen from Republican leadership and home-state Republican senators. Americans need judges to decide cases and administer justice, not vague assurances that someday—“this year,” maybe—they’ll have enough judges in their district. This week, the people of New Jersey and Florida could have been a step closer to getting the judges they so desperately need, but, instead, their wait for justice is only further delayed.