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Justice Denied: Senate Republicans' Obstruction of Judicial Confirmations

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 14/10/2015 Sen. Patrick Leahy

Last month, Republicans nearly forced yet another government shutdown over their opposition to fund women's healthcare. While they finally relented and worked across the aisle to keep the federal government running, Senate Republicans continue to fall short when it comes to fulfilling one of our most basic constitutional responsibilities in the Senate - considering judicial nominees for courts throughout the country.

Since Republicans took over the majority in January, the Senate majority has only allowed the confirmation vote of seven federal judges. Because of this refusal to schedule timely confirmation votes, there are more than 50 percent more judicial vacancies since Republicans assumed the majority in the Senate. That means there are not enough judges to handle the overwhelming number of cases in many of our federal courtrooms. In fact, because of the Senate Republicans' obstruction, the number of openings where judges are needed has skyrocketed--and it has had real consequences on Americans seeking justice.

Recently, the Associated Press reported on Latino migrant farmworkers who have waited more than three years just to learn whether they can proceed with their claim for stolen wages. The lengthy wait time is because there are too many cases and not enough judges in that California federal court, which the HuffingtonPost recently called "one of the most strained court systems in the country." The Senate finally voted confirmed a nominee to fill that vacancy, but only after Republicans forced him to wait nearly a year after being nominated. With the backload of cases on that California federal court, who knows how many more years the farmworkers will have to wait to actually receive justice.

Similarly, the Wall Street Journalhighlighted a case in the same California federal court brought by a former Navy technician who alleged that he had been discriminated against by his employer. That lawsuit has been pending in court for eight years. The technician has not been able to find steady work since filing his suit and does not know how he will manage financially as he waits for a day in court that has been needlessly delayed. One of the federal judges in that court, Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill, gave the Wall Street Journal this devastating assessment: "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?' And the simple answer, which I cannot give them, is this: It is not justice. We know it."

The federal court in Buffalo has one of the busiest caseloads in the country and handles more criminal cases than Washington, D.C., Boston, or Cleveland. Yet, there is not a single active federal judge in that district, and the court is staying afloat only through the voluntary efforts of two judges on senior status who are hearing cases in their retirement. Despite these circumstances, Republicans have continued to hold up a highly-qualified nominee for that court.

These examples remind us that justice delayed is effectively justice denied, and that Republicans' unwillingness to govern responsibly has had real costs. Since Republicans took over the majority nine months ago, the Senate has only scheduled the votes for seven judicial nominees--not even one judge per month. Some Republicans claim that this is a reasonable pace, but compare that to 2007, when I was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and we had a Republican president. At the same point in the seventh year of President Bush's tenure, Senate Democrats had already confirmed 33 judges. The Senate's constitutional role of considering and confirming nominees to the third branch should not be yet another political football.

There are currently 15 non-controversial judicial nominees pending on the Senate floor who have bipartisan support. They are each highly qualified, and many would fill emergency vacancies in courtrooms overwhelmed by high caseloads. At a time when Americans question whether Congress is able to break through the partisan gridlock to address any of the pressing problems we face as a nation, Senate Republicans should be moving forward on these uncontroversial nominees without further delay.

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