President Barack Obama may have been the constitutional law professor, but former President George W. Bush has schooled him in the science of judicial appointments.
During his first nine months in office, Obama has won confirmation for just three of 23 judges he nominated to federal judgeships — with a third of those victories being the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. At this point in his presidency, President Bush had confirmed eight, and President Clinton had confirmed nine.
Moreover, Obama has submitted just 23 names for appointments, whereas Bush had submitted 95 — more than three times as many.
Supporters say the White House has declined to put forth as many names because the pace at which judges are being confirmed in the Senate has become glacial. Under Senate rules, Republican senators can place anonymous holds on judges they don’t like.
An Obama spokesman rebuked criticism of their approach, citing a focus on bipartisanship.
“The administration has been working closely with members of Congress to identify a set of uniquely qualified judicial nominees with diverse professional experiences,” Ben LaBolt, an Obama spokesman, told The Washington Post. “This process has been bipartisan and we have made every effort to make confirmation wars a thing of the past.”
Bipartisanship, however, while a purported key focus of the President, hasn’t served the Obama team well thus far in Congress. Attempts to bring Republicans into the fold to support Obama’s stimulus measure proved fruitless, as the entire party defected against the measure. Obama and his congressional allies have also been faulted for trying too hard to compromise on healthcare legislation, when they are unlikely to get more than one or two Republican votes in the Senate — and may do so at the cost of including more liberal provisions.
Some are getting fed up with the delays, according to Michael Fletcher, a reporter with The Washington Post.
“The delays are having a ripple effect in federal courts, where caseloads continue to back up, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT)” told Fletcher. “Currently, about 90 judicial seats — about 10 percent of the total — remain vacant in appeals and district courts.”
“It is incumbent on the Democrats and the White House to push as hard as they can to confirm judicial nominees, given that next year Republicans will make an all-out effort to block candidates as a means to gin up their base before the election,” Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, told Fletcher.
Republicans made Democrats’ efforts to block a handful of judges during the Bush presidency a signature campaign issue. Democrats, however, have made little hay of Republicans repeated efforts to stymie Obama’s judicial picks.
Both parties acknowledge that part of the delay has occurred as a result of the battle over Obama’s Supreme Court nomination.
Federal judges are an important component in furthering a president’s legislative agenda, because they play a key role in shaping US law. The Supreme Court takes up fewer than 200 cases a year, leaving most final decisions to appellate courts.