Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Editor's Note: As Republicans and Democrats gear up for the debate over the confirmation of would-be Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, we look back on Sotomayor's last confirmation battle. In this editorial, first published on May 10, 1998, the Post editorial board charged the Republican Senate leadership with playing politics as Sotomayor waited for a full Senate vote. She was eventually confirmed to the 2nd Circuit on Oct. 2 -- more than 15 months after being nominated by President Clinton.
THE U.S. COURT of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has 13 authorized judgeships -- of which five are currently vacant. Predictably, this 40 percent vacancy rate has disrupted the court's normal work habits. So much so, in fact, that in March, Chief Judge Ralph Winter Jr. declared that "the judicial schedule of the active and senior judges of the court cannot be increased without adversely affecting the quality of decision making." Judge Winter has had to cancel hearings and has declared a judicial emergency, a move that allows three-judge 2nd Circuit panels to include two judges who do not actually sit on the court.
Given this crisis, one might expect the Senate leadership to act speedily to confirm the four 2nd Circuit nominees President Clinton has already named. No such luck. Sonia Sotomayor, currently a district court judge in New York, got the nod from the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 5 by a vote of 16 to 2. Since then, she has waited for a vote from the full Senate. But though all six senators from the states that make up the 2nd Circuit -- New York, Connecticut and Vermont -- have signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott urging "prompt and favorable action" on her nomination, no vote has been scheduled, and no reason has been given for the delay. As Judge Sotomayor hangs, the 2nd Circuit scrambles to handle the cases she should be hearing.
On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee unanimously reported another 2nd Circuit nominee, Chester Straub, to the floor, and the committee is also preparing to hold hearings on the two other nominees. So any time it wants, the full Senate can give the judge-deprived 2nd Circuit two more people. Apparently, however, the Republican leadership would rather play politics than alleviate the judicial emergency on this important appellate court.