Weekly Briefing

Does Senator’s silence signal dark motives?

BURR

Richard Burr blocks NC’s first female, African-American court appointee without explanation

Senator Richard Burr is blocking the nomination of Jennifer May-Parker to serve as a federal District Court judge in North Carolina’s Eastern District. One would like to think it’s an oversight, or perhaps, that his staff just hasn’t gotten around to vetting the nomination for him. Sadly, however, this seems to be an extremely unlikely explanation for the senator’s ongoing failure to return his “blue slip” (and thereby, under the arcane rules of the U.S. Senate, allow the nomination to proceed to a hearing).

Parker, of course, is the Raleigh-based federal prosecutor who was nominated by the President back in June to fill a vacancy that, even in the strange and glacially-paced world of federal judicial appointments stands out like a sore thumb. As N.C. Policy Watch Courts and Law Reporter Sharon McCloskey first reported last week:

When President Obama nominated Jennifer May-Parker as U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina back in late June, civil rights advocates hailed that choice as historic — and long overdue.

For a district spanning 44 counties from Raleigh to the coast and serving a population more than 25 percent African-American, the absence of a black federal court judge had become a rallying cry for improved diversity on the bench….

But three months have since lapsed, and May-Parker has yet to have a hearing scheduled before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the next step in moving her nomination to a final vote on the Senate floor.

Others nominated with her that day have had hearings, and more nominated after her have leap-frogged ahead, with hearings set for next week.

Why the delay?

Richard Burr.

According to a Senate Judiciary Committee aide, Burr has not returned the ‘blue slip’ typically needed before May-Parker’s hearing can be scheduled.”

Burr’s blockage of the nomination was further confirmed by reporter Anne Blythe of Raleigh’s News & Observer last Saturday – to whom Burr and his staff wouldn’t even deign to provide a reply when asked about the matter.

A ridiculous situation

As Blythe also reported, Burr’s action (or lack thereof) is not going unnoticed in the nation’s capital. Veteran D.C. court watcher and environmental policy advocate Glenn Sugameli put it this way to Blythe:

To believe you would block someone in a district that’s had a vacancy for that long, that’s pretty shocking, amazing and appalling. It’s a festering boil. It’s an open embarrassment for Sen. Burr – or it should be.”

Advocates at the Center for American Progress – a group that has exposed and combated the far right’s unprecedented efforts to block President Obama’s judicial nominees through its “Why Courts Matter” initiative, put it this way in an action alert:

North Carolinians deserve to have their courts working at full capacity and Jennifer May-Parker deserves a simple yes or no vote.”

Unfortunately, at this point, there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of such an event occurring any time soon. Because of the Senate’s antiquated rules, Burr can, as a practical matter, unilaterally block the nomination without even publicly acknowledging that he is doing so.

This is, of course, a ridiculous situation and symptomatic of a broader dysfunction currently at work in Congress – namely, the far right’s determination to do literally anything to block each and every administration initiative and prevent government from working as it is intended –whether in the field of health care, tax policy or even foreign policy..

This practice has been especially noteworthy in the realm of judicial appointments, where Obama’s nominees have been stonewalled regularly and subjected to unexplained delays almost as a matter of course. Indeed, according to a study released by officials at the Congressional Research Service in May, the obstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees has been unprecedented in its breadth and depth. This from a summary of the report prepared by the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center:

For example, according to the CRS report…it took less than a month (29.3 days) on average for President George W. Bush’s unopposed Circuit Court nominees to be confirmed after being voted out of Committee. That average time to confirmation skyrocketed during President Obama’s first term to more than four months (124.7 days).  The average wait from Committee vote to confirmation for President Bush’s unopposed District Court nominees was just barely over a month (32.4 days), while President Obama’s unopposed District Court nominees had to wait nearly three times as long (89 days). Again, this was the wait for a floor vote by nominees who did not receive a “no” vote from any Senator. 

And, according to CRS, with respect to all of President Obama’s judicial nominees confirmed during his first term, the wait from Committee vote to floor vote “reached historically high levels.” For Obama’s Circuit Court nominees, the average wait was 138.5 days; for G.W. Bush Circuit Court nominees, it was only 35.3 days.  Obama’s District Court nominees waited an average of 98.5 days from Committee vote to confirmation, while that wait averaged only 34.9 days for the Bush District Court nominees.”

Got that? Even the nominees ultimately approved unanimously are being subjected to absurd delays. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on in such situations (and it’s clearly not about the good of our federal courts).   

Why this matters

For the vast majority of Americans who live outside the DC beltway and who do not practice law in the federal courts, this dispute may seem at first blush to be an esoteric debate over a niche issue, but unfortunately, this is not the case. In fact, the battles over the federal courts and the judges who sit on them have a huge impact on average citizens and the country’s future. And while the Obama administration has done a commendable job of nominating qualified and diverse candidates, the unprecedented obstructionism of the right has had a measurable and negative impact. As the Why Courts Matter site reports:

This year, more than 195 million people — over 60 percent of the U.S. population — lived in a community with a federal courtroom vacancy. This crisis affects all citizens because it creates a backlog of cases that undermines our system of justice and makes it difficult for most Americans to have their case heard in a timely manner. Our nation has 94 federal judicial districts (with at least one courthouse in each) that handles trial-level criminal and civil cases. The 13 U.S. federal appellate circuits generally handle intermediate appeals from the federal district courts and span several states.”

All of which begs the question: Will Senator Burr get away with his cynical and secretive maneuver and keep the Eastern District’s longstanding judicial emergency in place? Or will he at least be forced to explain his actions? Let’s hope for the latter at a minimum.

In recent months, citizens all over the country have been standing up and speaking out to dislodge stalled nominations in states from Texas to Florida to Iowa. If there’s any justice in the federal justice system nomination process, North Carolina will soon join this list.

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