Senate moves slowly in confirming Obama's lower-court judicial nominees

By Laura Litvan
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

President Obama, on the verge of winning confirmation of his second Supreme Court appointment in two years, is having limited success shaping the lower federal courts that handle thousands more cases.

Obama got off to a slow start picking judges for the federal trial and appeals courts, and Republican delaying tactics have stalled some confirmations. Filling judicial vacancies will get tougher after November with the likelihood that Democrats' 59 to 41 control of the Senate will be eroded.

The president's allies question his choice of nominees and complain that he has been too cautious in confronting GOP opposition.

"A lot of groups are still waiting for this president to nominate someone who will really reshape the bench," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights in Washington. The group supports expanding legal protection for minorities.

The 13 federal appeals courts are particularly influential. They have the final say in thousands of cases, while the Supreme Court decides about 80 cases per year. Appellate courts ruled on or dismissed 59,600 cases in the year ending March 31, 2009, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington.

Obama has submitted to the Senate 63 trial court nominations and 22 for the appeals courts. At the same point in his first term, George W. Bush had nominated 83 trial judges and 32 for the appeals courts, according to Russell Wheeler, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The Senate has confirmed nine Obama appellate nominees, three fewer than for Bush at a comparable point for the former Republican president. The Senate has confirmed 27 of Obama's nominees to be trial judges, compared with 51 for Bush.

Many of Obama's choices have generated little controversy. Wheeler suggested that Obama hasn't taken full advantage of the Democrats' control of the Senate to push his nominees.

"Obama obviously has a lot on his plate. But then what president doesn't?" said Wheeler. Obama last week urged the Senate to move more quickly to confirm his nominees.

"If we want to deliver justice in our courts, then we need judges on our benches," he said.

The lower-court nominations have been overshadowed by Obama's Supreme Court appointments. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed by the Senate last year, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan is on track to win confirmation this week.

Twenty lower-court nominees, including 12 cleared unanimously by the Judiciary Committee, await further Senate action.

Each senator has the power to block a nominee by putting a hold on the appointment without giving a reason, a tactic that has stalled some of Obama's choices.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the judiciary panel, said Republicans aren't entirely to blame for delays. He said appointees are "moving along" without the clashes that scuttled some of Bush's nominees.

-- Bloomberg News

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