The fifth and sixth years of a presidency often end up being high noon for judicial politics. This time the first confrontation concerns the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the venue for many important regulatory issues and a training ground for future Supreme Court justices.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he intends to force a vote this week on the nomination of Cornelia Pillard to the court. Pillard’s is one of three nominations Republicans are opposing. They say the Democrats are trying to pack the court. The Democrats say they’re just trying to fill vacancies, and argue that the Republicans’ behavior is so abusive they’ll restrict the filibuster if it continues.
Republicans should remember what happened the last time we had such a fight, and they shouldn’t give in.
Starting in 2003, the Democratic minority embarked on an unprecedented series of filibusters to stop President George W. Bush’s appointments to appeals courts. Back then, Republicans said there was a crisis of judicial vacancies needing to be filled. Democrats replied that the courts, especially the D.C. Circuit, were underworked and that the Republicans were trying to pack the courts with like-minded judges. Now the sides are reversed, and so are the talking points.
As it happens, the Republicans have the better of the current argument. They aren’t conducting a “blockade” that violates past norms. President Barack Obama’s nominees are getting confirmed at a faster pace than Bush’s were at the same point in his presidency. One of Obama’s nominees, Sri Srinivasan, was unanimously confirmed in May.
And the D.C. Circuit now has even less work than it did when Democrats were blocking nominees. Merrick Garland, the court’s chief judge and an appointee of President Bill Clinton, informed the Senate that the number of oral arguments per active judge has fallen over the past decade. So have the number of written decisions issued and appeals taken. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, says that one judge on the circuit wrote to him to argue that “there wouldn’t be enough work to go around” if more were appointed. Grassley has introduced a bill that would shrink the circuit by three seats, and urges the administration to fill vacancies in other circuits.