Sustained Outrage

president_official_portrait_lowres.jpgEarlier today, during a meeting with Senate Democrats, President Obama said that getting nominees confirmed — including judicial nominees — “is going to be a priority.” The president urged lawmakers not to hold nominees hostage over unrelated issues, saying, “Let’s have a fight about real stuff.”

Here’s the exchange between Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the president:

patrickleahy.jpgLeahy: You have a great sense of what the federal judiciary should be. I think back to President Clinton’s time, when the other side blocked 61 of his judges. You’ve had some superb judges. You’ve talked to both Republicans and Democrats, sent up some superb names. And Senator Reid still has to file a cloture. We have to spend a week of doing that, and then they pass by 100 to nothing or 90-10.

My thing is this — because of what they did last time, we end up with the greatest shortage and the most judicial crises I think in our history. Will you continue to work very hard to get up names as quickly as possible, so that we can do this, and help us get these judges through? I don’t want the same judicial crises to occur. You’ve had good nominees. Can you commit to work with us, both parties, and keep trying to get them through?

Obama: Well, this is going to be a priority. Look, it’s not just judges, unfortunately, Pat, it’s also all our federal appointees. We’ve got a huge backlog of folks who are unanimously viewed as well qualified, nobody has a specific objection to them, but end up having a hold on them because of some completely unrelated piece of business. That’s an example, Michael, of the kind of stuff that Americans just don’t understand.

On the judges front, we had a judge for the — coming out of Indiana, Judge Hamilton, who everybody said was outstanding — Evan Bayh, Democrat; Dick Lugar, Republican; all recommended. How long did it take us? Six months, six, seven months for somebody who was supported by the Democratic and Republican senator from that state. And you can multiply that across the board. So we have to start highlighting the fact that this is not how we should be doing business.

Now, in fairness — in fairness, when we were in the minority, there were some times where we blocked judges, we blocked appointees. I think it’s fair to say we were a little more selective in how we did it — “a lot more,” somebody said. (Laughter.)

So this is an example of where I’m going to reach out to Mitch McConnell; I know Harry has as well. And I’m just going to say, look, if the government is going to work for the American people, I can’t have the administrator for GSA, which runs every federal facility, all federal buildings all across the country — here we are, we’re trying to save billions of dollars, cut waste — Claire McCaskill has been all on top of how can we audit our spending — and we could save billions of dollars in ending old leases that don’t work or renegotiating them or consolidating buildings and efficiencies. But I don’t have a GSA administrator, even though I nominated somebody who was well qualified several months ago, and nobody can tell me that there’s anything particularly wrong with her. They’re blocking her because of some unrelated matter. I don’t know, you guys may know better than I do. And that is — that has to end. It has to end. (Applause.) And the American people want it to end.

Let’s have a fight about real stuff. Don’t hold this woman hostage. If you have an objection about my health care policies, then let’s debate the health care policies. But don’t suddenly end up having a GSA administrator who is stuck in limbo somewhere because you don’t like something else that we’re doing, because that doesn’t serve the American people. Then they don’t know what the argument is about. Then it’s just sort of a plague on both your houses because it looks like you guys are just fighting all the time. And we’ve got to put an end to that.

As I’ve noted before, even non-controversial nominees, including those who pass out of committee without any votes against them, face long waits before they get a vote by the full chamber.

The judicial nominee who’s been waiting the longest is Joseph A. Greenaway Jr., a federal judge from New Jersey who’s up for a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. While a vote on Greenaway has been scheduled for Feb. 8, New Jersey’s Democratic Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez expressed their unhappiness at the delay in confirming Greenaway.

Lautenberg: We know that for some time now there has been obstructionism to moving ahead with the people’s business, that the price obtained for obstructionism is political gain. But, like any other transaction, when you do that—when we take the time and the energy devoted toward trying to move ahead and do not move ahead—the price that is paid for this by the American public. It is apparent that our friends on the other side have decided they would rather sacrifice the people’s need for action on critical issues for their party’s political gain.

We have seen delay, diversion, parliamentary gimmicks, wasted time, and a throwaway of huge resources to distort and distract us from accomplishing better lives for American families. Republicans have used stalling tactics such as the filibuster over 100 times since the start of this Congress just over 1 year ago. The problem is, the victims of these delay-and-destroy tactics are people who need to get back to work, have affordable health care, better education, and other essentials for decent living.

The victims are also well-qualified nominees for high government positions who seek to serve in order to carry America forward—nominees to fill an appeals court position, such as Judge Joseph Greenaway from my State of New Jersey.

Joseph Greenaway is a well-qualified judge who has served on the Federal bench in New Jersey for over a decade. He has been nominated by President Obama for a seat on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. He brings exceptional credentials and experience that are second to none. But his nomination has been blocked without any criticism of his education, experience, or merit. 

Judge Greenaway will be an outstanding addition to the bench. The American Bar Association rated him ‘‘unanimously well qualified’’ for this position. That is why he was passed unanimously out of the Judiciary Committee. Not one Republican on that committee dissented. There was not one vote against him. Yet Judge Greenaway has been sidelined for over 4 months, waiting for a vote on the Senate floor, despite the need to fill that position. Every time we try to schedule a vote, Republicans have objected.

I am pleased to note there has been consent to go to a vote on Monday evening. The wait has been long. It has been tortuous. There can’t be any understanding of why. With all the wonderful accolades Judge Greenaway has had for his work, his experiences, his climb to the position he has had, what could be objected to? I say, if he is not acceptable in our colleagues’ eyes, speak up. Vote against him. Show the American people why this educated, brilliant legal scholar is not fit to serve.

Obstructionism last year led to the lowest number of judicial confirmations in more than 50 years. It is time for this to end, and it doesn’t end with a vote on Judge Greenaway. There are lots of positions that have yet to be filled. I wish to say to those who hear this or understand otherwise what is going on, this man, people like him, and our country deserve better. When a confirmation is blocked, it is not just one judge who suffers. The whole system suffers under the weight of vacancies in the judiciary. The American people suffer with longer waits for justice in overburdened courts.

Menendez: This is a nominee for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals who has about as good as it gets in terms of bipartisan support. At the age of 40, he became a U.S. District Court judge. Then, he passed by unanimous consent of this Chamber—Republicans and Democrats alike, unanimous consent. Now he passes out of the Judiciary Committee by, again, a unanimous agreement. Yet he has been held up for months on the Senate floor. Why? Simply because you can?

That is not acceptable. It is not acceptable, when I have heard my colleagues on the other side of the aisle for years talk about an up-or-down vote: Give us an up-or-down vote on a nominee, particularly a nominee who is eminently qualified, who is noncontroversial by virtue of the fact that he has achieved the ability to be agreed to in terms of his nominations, both past and present, as it relates to the Judiciary Committee without qualification, without objection.

So it is clear that up to this point the obstruction of this nominee is not about what is right for the Nation; it is not about acting in the best interests of an overburdened judicial system; it is not about ideology; it is not even about Judge Greenaway. It is about the politics of obstruction. That is consequential to the judicial system and to our citizens who depend on that system for the administration and delivery of justice. This is more than a nominee; it is everyone who is waiting for their cases on appeal.

Three nominees for the 4th Circuit, which includes West Virginia, have been approved by the Judiciary Committee and are awaiting votes from the full senate: Virginia State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Milano Keenan and North Carolina Judges Albert Diaz and James A. Wynn Jr.