A group of legal reform organizations on Tuesday called on US government officials to make judicial nominations "a top priority" [letter, PDF; press release] and to fill judicial vacancies "expeditiously." The letter, sent to President Barack Obama, the Senate majority and minority leaders as well as the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee [official websites], called on the parties to work together to end the politicization of the judicial confirmation process. The groups, including the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Judicature Society [advocacy websites], illustrated the current problem by citing the 103 current vacancies in the federal judiciary, 40 of which constitute "emergency" vacancies, and the estimated 20 additional vacancies anticipated in the near future. The groups pointed out that Obama has nominated fewer federal district and circuit court judges than former president George W. Bush did at this point in his presidency and that the time period between vacancy and nomination is also longer. In order to remedy the current shortage, the groups included a list of recommendations to both the Obama administration and the Senate leadership. The administration is encouraged to nominate more federal judges and to "speed up" the nominating process. The Senate is encouraged to abolish the practice of "secret holds," which allows senators to anonymously obstruct the confirmation processes. They also urged the Senate to vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan [official profile; JURIST news archive] without threatening the use of a filibuster, criticizing senatorial delay tactics:
[W]hen a judicial nominee is qualified to serve and enjoys support from across the political spectrum, the Senate should not engage in tactics that serve only to delay and score political points, and should simply take an up or down vote on a nominee after hearings. Unjustified delaying tactics, practiced by both parties in the past, do not serve the courts or the Constitution.Both the president and the Senate were urged to fulfill their responsibilities to the judicial branch in order to protect the integrity of the justice system.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) [official website] is currently circulating a petition [press release] in the Senate calling for an end to "secret holds." On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee [official website] is scheduled to hold a hearing examining the Senate's use of holds, filibusters and other delay tactics [press release] to block presidential nominations. Last year, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor [Oyez profile; JURIST news archive] faced delays when the vote on whether to send her nomination to the full Senate was pushed back by a week [JURIST report]. Justice Samuel Alito [Oyez profile; JURIST news archive], nominated during the Bush Administration, faced similar delays [JURIST report] during his confirmation in 2006. According to the US Courts website, there are currently 44 federal judicial nominations pending [official website], with the longest hold being close to one year.