Obama continues to lag when it comes to judges

The Kennedy administration's secrets about West Berlin remain safe for now.
The Kennedy administration's secrets about West Berlin remain safe for now. (The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Obama administration has a good shot at setting a couple of modern indoor records for a president halfway through his first term: fewest number of judicial nominees and, with strong assistance from Senate Republicans, fewest number of judges placed on the bench.

As of the Senate's return Monday, President Obama will have officially nominated 56 judges for the federal district and appeals courts (not counting one for the Supreme Court), according to Capitol Hill data. That's fewer than either Bill Clinton (77) or George W. Bush (98) had in mid-April of their second years.

Even though the Democrats had a supermajority in the Senate of 60 votes until three months ago, the Senate has confirmed only 18 of Obama's nominees, far fewer than half those confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Senate in mid-April in Clinton's first two years (46, not counting a Supreme Court pick) or the (barely) Democratic majority Bush dealt with (43).

One might argue that Obama nominated fewer people because he started with far fewer judicial vacancies than did Clinton or Bush. (Credit for that goes to Senate Democrats, an especially thoughtful and considerate lot, who were determined to confirm as many conservative judges as possible during the last months of the Bush presidency.)

But the pace of nominations and confirmations has not kept up with the increasing number of retiring judges. So while Obama took office with 53 vacancies, the number of empty chairs on the federal bench now totals more than 100.

Several factors may help the administration reach these new records, especially the one for fewest folks nominated. It's most likely, really almost certain, that Justice John Paul Stevens, who will be 90 on April 20, is going to retire. That will tie up the Senate Judiciary Committee and then the full Senate for many weeks.

Also, this being an election year, the Senate is not going to be doing much business after the Fourth of July, when a third of its members, a number of them facing difficult races, will be focused on scrounging for money and votes.

The Republican minority may let a few nominations go through, especially for district court seats, which, with all due respect, don't count for much. But the GOP's general slowdown strategy, so wildly successful thus far, is likely to resemble a full halt as the elections near and the prospects for substantial GOP gains in Congress materialize.

It's related to the broader opposition strategy, as former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett explained last week with regard to Obama's announcement on offshore oil drilling. "A shrewd move," Bartlett called it, but he said it wouldn't bring Republicans on board to support an energy bill. "No. Republicans in the Congress have made a calculation," he observed, "that cooperating with this administration at this time is not necessary for them to pick up seats."

But let's assume that, for some bizarre reason, the GOP senators were willing to confirm every last judicial nominee pending in committee or on the floor. The administration would still end its first two years with far fewer judges placed on the bench than either Bush or Clinton.

Bush managed to put 100 judges on the district (83) and appeals (17) courts in his first two years, according to Congressional Research Service data. Clinton did better, putting the black robes on 127 folks -- 108 on the district courts and 19 appeals judges (plus one on the high court). Ronald Reagan was able to fill 88 seats, while Bush I filled 70.

Unless the Obama administration quickly nominates 14 more judges and the Senate confirms them and those pending at the Senate, the prize for fewest judges will go to this administration. (With some effort, the White House may end up at least nominating more judges than Bush I, who nominated only 73. )

Diplomatic debauchery

Important word from Kabul. Seems a recent embassy Mardi Gras party was such an out-of-control, drunken bash -- we're told that one diplomat, possibly from Turkey, relieved himself on the side of the yellow chancery building -- that Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has banned big parties at the sprawling complex, at least until the Marine Corps ball in a few months.

Unclear what the problem was. After all, it was Mardi Gras. And if it was a Turkish diplomat, well, the Turks are staunch NATO allies, so they should have some privileges. In an e-mail, the embassy folks said they would "take a pass on commenting."

National security blanket

The older things get, the more they're secret? The Pentagon has been holding back some documents, requested by the independent researchers at the National Security Archive 18 years ago, about a project that has come to be known as "Poodle Blanket." This is about contingency plans in 1961 for a possible confrontation over West Berlin. That would be "a city that is no longer divided, a confrontation with a country that no longer exists and a war that ended 20 years ago," said the archive's director, Thomas Blanton.

Apparently the Pentagon's poodle documents, although many related papers were released years ago by the State Department, somehow could still damage national security.

Lore has it that the project initially generated so many plans and paper that someone complained they were producing a horse blanket when what was needed was a pony blanket. The numbers were whittled down to make the info more usable to top officials, and the effort's code name became "Pony Blanket." From there it got further abbreviated, and the code name became "Poodle Blanket."

Maybe they'd give up the documents if the code name became "Teacup Yorkie Blanket"?

© 2010 The Washington Post Company