Senate Republicans against DC Circuit Court nominees: talking through their hats

by Sidney Shapiro

October 30, 2013

This week, it was reported that Senate Democrats plan to force a vote to confirm one judicial nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals if Republican Senators continue to block the nominee’s confirmation. Patricia Ann Millett, who has worked for Democratic and Republican administrations in the past, is the contested candidate.  Although the circuit court has three vacancies, the Republicans oppose a vote because they say the D.C. Court of Appeals has too many judges. Senator Jefferson Sessions, for example, is quoted as saying about the court, "They have, by far, the lowest caseload per judge. They take the summers off." Other than this political rhetoric, there is nothing to back up this claim. The Republican’s true objection is that, after the President fills the vacancies, the court will have more judges that will have been appointed by presidents who were Democrats than Republicans. But this is our constitutional system. If a party wins the presidency, the President gets to fill judicial vacancies and the Senate concurs unless the person nominated is not competent. 

From the time the President announced his nominations to the Court back in June, Republicans have kept up a steady stream of misinformation about the need to fill the court. First they claimed that filling the court vacancies would amount to “court-packing,” a term that refers to an effort during the Roosevelt administration to add more judges to the Supreme Court -- not to eliminate existing seats, as the Republicans would like to do here. In addition, they were more than happy to fill the seats vacated during the Bush Administration. 

Now they claim that the D.C. Circuit does not need as many judges as it current has. Senator Grassley has crafted legislation to permanently eliminate seats on the circuit court to preclude the possibility that the President can fill the existing vacancies. In the past, however, Congress has determined how many judges are needed in each of the federal circuit courts based on recommendations of the non-partisan Federal Judicial Center, which studies caseloads and makes its recommendations based on available empirical evidence. This is why Chief Justice Roberts has asked Congress to fill the vacancies on the D.C. Circuit. As Chief Justice, he is the head of the Center and he is acting on its recommendations. In fact, the average caseload for the Court is up, from 119 cases in 2005 to 188 cases this year. The cases before the Court are also more complex than other circuits because it reviews cases involving complicated regulations adopted by agencies. It would be a shame if decisions about the number of judges in each circuit, one of the few remaining vestiges of non-partisanship left in Congress— were wiped out by Republican partisanship.

Why are the Republicans talking through their hats? The answer lies in the D.C. Circuit's unique jurisdiction over environmental, health, safety and other regulations, which gives it a particularly important role in the federal judiciary.   For years, the circuit court has had more judges appointed by Republican presidents than presidents who were Democrats. Now that President Obama has won reelection, and can change the balance, the Republicans are no longer willing to fill the vacancies that they were only to happy to fill when it was a Republican president who was choosing the nominees. 

The American people deserve better and are not falling for the Republicans’ hot air. Editorials from local papers across the country have come out in support of filling the Court’s remaining seats.  Senator Grassley’s own local paper the Daily Iowan notes:

Unlike the attempted 1937court-packing power grab by Roosevelt, Obama is not seeking to create new seats on the Court of Appeals to tilt the court’s partisan balance in his favor. Obama seeks only to fill judicial vacancies in accordance with his Constitutional job description.... Grassley argues that the court’s relatively low caseload requires such a reduction in seats, but an April report from the nonpartisan Judicial Conference of the United States, a group led by Roberts, recommended keeping the number of judges on the D.C. court at 11. The actions and the rhetoric of Grassley and the rest of his Senate partisans smack ultimately of obstructionism.

The argument that we should move seats from this circuit to other circuits because the Court is "not busy enough" is laughable at best and deeply cynical at worst. The Republican Senators simply cannot accept that their party lost the election, and they are prepared to stall judicial nominations until they win again, no matter the cost to the country or the Constitution. 

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Sidney A. Shapiro holds the Fletcher Chair in Administrative Law at the Wake Forest University School of Law and is the Associate Dean for Research and Development. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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