Pennsylvania Senators Patrick Toomey and Bob Casey got together to ensure appointment of a full complement of federal judges in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Hallelujah. We had vacancies for so long in the Middle District that we had been declared a judicial emergency. Judge Matthew W. Brann in Williamsport and Judge Malachy E. Mannion in Wilkes-Barre should do a fine, credible job and be hard-working employees for the American taxpayer.
Unfortunately, there are still many vacancies to be filled.
Earlier this month, Casey and Toomey came together to find highly qualified nominees to two long-vacant seats in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. This bipartisan effort is good news for Pennsylvanians who rely on a court system that has been hobbled by vacancies that the Senate has been too slow to fill. Our state's federal district courts are still operating with six vacancies (with another two opening up soon), but the announcement was an encouraging step forward. I know one of those judges in the Eastern District, Gerald McHugh, who is a highly regarded lawyer and deserves confirmation.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is not well known, but it is second only to the Supreme Court in the scope of influence it has over American law and justice. Located in Washington, D.C., it has the final word on scores of federal laws and regulations each year, touching on important issues including workers' rights, women's rights, environmental protection and the financial industry.
Every president since Jimmy Carter has placed at least three nominees on the D.C. Circuit. Yet, Senate Republicans have allowed President Obama to place just one nominee on the court, leaving it with three of its 11 seats still sitting empty. The Republicans, of course, are not the only ones to block nominees — the Democrats have played that game as well. The D.C. Circuit is high-profile because of where it is located and the type of cases that are filed there.
In May, Obama nominated three exceptionally qualified individuals to fill the court's three vacancies. Each would bring an exceptional background to the nation's second-most-influential court. For instance, one of the nominees, Cornelia "Nina" Pillard, is best known for writing the briefs that persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn the Virginia Military Institute's male-only policy, opening the prestigious institution to women for the first time. She also worked with George W. Bush administration lawyers to successfully defend the Family and Medical Leave Act in the courts. And she commands enormous respect from across ideologies as the head of Georgetown's Supreme Court Institute, which helps to prepare attorneys to argue in front of the Supreme Court, regardless of the side they are arguing. The institute is so well regarded that it assisted attorneys in every single case in front of the Supreme Court in its last term.
Despite the high qualifications of Pillard and her two fellow nominees, and despite the clear need to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, the Republican minority in the Senate threatened filibuster before the names were submitted. When President Bush was in office, the same Republicans were anxious to get their chosen favorites on the bench. Unfortunately, the filling of judicial nominees has become a high-level patronage game that both parties can play, and play it they do, to the detriment of the people.
Senators from either party are entitled to vote against any nominees whom they believe are unqualified. However, use of the filibuster to prevent nominees from reaching a yes or no vote is highly irresponsible. It is rare that the issue of federal judges has anything to do with the judges themselves and most often is about political battles between their parties and their leadership. Republicans, including the venerable Senator John McCain of Arizona, have gone on record saying that Pillard, Patricia Millett and Robert Wilkins deserve senatorial votes to get them on the D.C. Circuit.
Toomey has yet to say if he will join a filibuster or allow votes on the D.C. Circuit nominees. Hopefully, Toomey will extend his efforts of bipartisanship and help end the gridlock that is hurting the federal court system and therefore the administration of justice in the United States.
Clifford A. Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, Pa., is a past president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represents the views of these organizations.