On May 7, 2012, LDF participated in a White House event addressing the vacancy crisis in the federal judiciary and the corresponding need to confirm nominees to the federal bench. The event included over 150 advocates, lawyers and community leaders from 27 states and many national organizations. The convening was designed to connect senior Obama Administration officials with persons concerned about the federal courts to discuss the judicial vacancy crisis and how to overcome the Senate’s obstruction of nominees still waiting to be confirmed. It coincided with the conclusion of a limited Senate deal which confirmed several judicial nominees held over from 2011.
“This is an issue of huge importance to the quality of justice in our federal courts. We are delighted the White House chose to highlight the vacancy crisis in such a prominent way,” stated Leslie Proll, the Director of LDF’s Washington office, who attended the event.
LDF was accompanied at the White House by several of its cooperating attorneys and colleagues from around the country, including Geraldine Sumter of Ferguson, Stein, Chambers, Gresham & Sumter in North Carolina; Armand Derfner of Derfner, Altman & Wilborn in South Carolina; Vinceretta Chiles, president of the Old Dominion Bar Association in Virginia; Steve Bright, President of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Georgia; Arkie Byrd of Mays, Byrd & Associates in Arkansas; and Sheila Thomas, a civil rights lawyer in Oakland, California. All are engaged in judicial nominations issues in their respective states and circuits.
At the convening, United States Attorney General Eric Holder reaffirmed the Administration’s commitment to ensuring that all of its judicial nominees are confirmed by the Senate this year. He stated that it has taken President Obama’s nominees five times longer to be confirmed than the nominees of President George W. Bush. He noted that while President Bush and President Clinton began their presidencies with large number of vacancies, the number of vacancies had diminished significantly by this time in their respective terms. In contrast, because of Senate obstruction of nominees, President Obama faces a higher vacancy rate now than existed at the time he entered office. There are 77 current vacancies and 17 future vacancies. With almost one tenth of the federal judgeships vacant, the Senate should be working very hard to confirm judges to alleviate this national crisis.
White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler promised the audience that the Administration was fully committed to ensuring confirmation for the nominees remaining on the Senate calendar and those in the pipeline, in order to reduce the vacancy rate. She noted that in previous Administrations, many confirmations occurred in the summer and fall months of a presidential election year.
A number of critical nominations remain pending before the Senate. There are five African-American nominees waiting for a vote. These include George Russell, nominated to the District of Maryland; Gershwin Drain, nominated to the Eastern District of Michigan; Michael Shipp, nominated to the District of New Jersey; Brian Davis, nominated to the Middle District of Florida; and Paul Watford, nominated to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Paul Watford’s nomination is especially significant. Of the 29 seats on the Ninth Circuit, there is only one African-American judge: Judge Johnnie Rawlinson, who was appointed by President Clinton. Only two other African Americans have ever served on the Ninth Circuit. President Carter appointed Jerome Farris and Cecil Poole, and they served until 1995 and 1996, respectively. Watford’s confirmation would bring some much needed diversity to the Ninth Circuit.