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Senate moves to confirm new D.C. judges amid vacancy crisis

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is pushing legislation that would change how D.C. judicial appointments are confirmed to avoid delays in seating nominees. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The Senate on Wednesday confirmed three D.C. judicial nominees after the city’s courts warned in December about the severity of its long-standing crisis of judicial vacancies.

The D.C. Superior Court and D.C. Court of Appeals were confronting a record 19 total empty seats — 16 of which were in the Superior Court, a quarter of its entire bench — before the Senate acted on Wednesday to begin chipping away at the vacancies.

The vacancies have been largely due to Senate inaction over the years, causing backlogs, increased workloads for overburdened judges, and delays for D.C. residents in resolving lawsuits, family disputes and criminal cases. The Senate, which often prioritizes confirming federal judges, has oversight of D.C. judicial nominees since D.C. is not a state.

The Senate also began procedural motions for four additional D.C. judicial nominees, meaning up to seven vacancies could be filled.

“This is a tremendous jumping-off point and puts us in a place where we haven’t been in several years,” said Douglas Buchanan, spokesman for the courts.

D.C. courts ‘sound the alarm’ on judicial vacancies as local officials demand movement in Senate

The Senate confirmed the three nominees to the D.C. Superior Court through roll call votes — which is rare for D.C. judicial nominees, who have typically been confirmed by voice vote or unanimous consent. But Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) blocked the approval of D.C. judges and other nominees under unanimous consent in December, causing further delays.

The confirmed judges include Rupa Ranga Puttagunta, a D.C. administrative law judge for the D.C. Rental Housing Commission, who has also represented indigent criminal defendants and domestic violence victims pro bono; Kenia Seoane Lopez, a magistrate judge on the Superior Court who previously served as an assistant attorney general in the D.C. Attorney General’s Office’s child support division; and Sean C. Staples, a magistrate judge in the Superior Court’s criminal and domestic violence divisions, who previously worked in family court presiding over abuse and neglect cases.

Staples filled a seat that had been empty since 2016.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) applauded the Senate action on Wednesday, but said it is time to change how D.C. judicial nominees are confirmed to avoid such long delays. Norton has put forth legislation that would allow D.C. judicial nominees to be automatically confirmed after a 30-day congressional review period if lawmakers don’t object during that time-frame, which is similar to how D.C. legislation is reviewed in Congress.

“The deficiencies of this system, which requires D.C. to wait for congressional action to staff its own local courts, have long been apparent and are contributing to a decline in public safety,” Norton said in a statement. "My bill to eliminate the requirement for local D.C. judges to be confirmed by the Senate passed in a House committee in December, and justice requires it to be passed by Congress and signed into law as soon as possible.”

Nominees for the D.C. courts go through a more complicated nomination process than federal judges. They are first selected by the Judicial Nomination Commission, whose members are appointed by local and federal appointed officials. The commission sends its selections to the president, who nominates one of them and sends the nominee to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for consideration.

But once nominees advance from the committee, they can languish for months or years.

Buchanan warned in December that the courts had “reached a critical state" and pleaded with the Senate to act to confirm the judicial nominees as quickly as possible. “We have now reached a point in which we find it necessary to sound the alarm,” he said at the time.

Buchanan described how the Court of Appeals — the city’s highest court handling criminal, civil, family and administrative appeals — had to delay roughly 200 cases per year because it lacked a full third of its judicial resources, meaning limited judicial panels could be assembled.

One of the Court of Appeals nominees that the Senate took up on Wednesday, D.C. Solicitor General Loren L. AliKhan, had said in her nomination hearing that the court’s backlog is the most pressing problem confronting the court, sometimes causing years-long delays in cases.

“If you’re seeing a five-year delay from when an appeal is filed until when an opinion comes down? That causes the public to lose confidence,” she said, “especially when we’re dealing with cases involving child custody, abuse and neglect, criminal cases. There needs to be swift justice."

Even with seven vacancies expected to be filled, that still leaves 12 empty seats.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s judiciary committee, said he is grateful that the Senate made progress Wednesday, but the dozen vacancies still present problems.

“The vacancies on our Courts have been created by Congress, but it’s D.C. residents that live with the consequences in delayed justice and accountability,” he said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We need Congress to fill the remaining seats and let our Courts work — and then Congress should grant the District statehood and get out of the business of running a local jurisdiction in its spare time.”