Cross-posted from Huffington Post.
All year, we’ve seen partisan politics impede the progress America needs — from jobs to anti-discrimination measures to work and family advances to the safety net. On Tuesday, we had a stark reminder that our system of justice too can fall victim to political gamesmanship.
After more than a year of stall tactics and procedural roadblocks, the Senate failed to close debate and hold an up-or-down vote on the nomination of an impeccably qualified lawyer, Caitlin Halligan, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. By blocking a nominee with exemplary qualifications and bipartisan support in the legal community, the Senate has put politics ahead of qualifications and competence for judicial nominees, threatening access to justice in this country.
Caitlin Halligan has the kind of impressive academic and legal background that has won support from those on both sides of the political aisle in the past. She graduated with honors from Georgetown University Law Center, clerked for Justice Stephen G. Breyer on the Supreme Court and Judge Patricia M. Wald on the D.C. Circuit Court, and she has spent much of her career in government service. She is currently the general counsel to the New York County District Attorney’s Office and previously served as the solicitor general of the state of New York. As solicitor general, she argued five cases before the Supreme Court and was counsel of record in more than 50.
These outstanding qualifications and demonstrated commitment to equal justice garnered Halligan praise and support from diverse legal scholars and organizations with diverse agendas and judicial philosophies since she was nominated 14 months ago. And her background prompted the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary to give her a “highly qualified” rating by unanimous agreement.
If an eminently qualified nominee like Caitlin Halligan cannot get an up-or-down vote in the Senate, how will any future nominee be seriously considered? And how will the nation get out of the judicial crisis we are facing?
More than one in eight federal judgeships in the country — 99 positions — are, or soon will be, vacant. And 29 of them qualify as judicial emergencies. Members of the Senate not only chose to ignore Caitlin Halligan’s merits, but they also ignored the urgent need to fill three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit. Arguments that the court can adequately handle its caseload as is are nothing more than a short-sighted attempt to mask the obstructionist, partisan tactics that drove Tuesday’s vote. The court’s caseload demands a full bench. Without it, justice for more Americans will be delayed.
The Senate also missed an important opportunity to add diversity to the court. When our courts are more reflective of the population, people have more confidence that judges understand the real-world implications of their rulings. Caitlin Halligan would have been only the sixth female judge in the 118-year history of the D.C. Circuit, which makes the failure to bring her nomination to a vote even more disappointing.
Justice in this country depends on having qualified judges on our courts who have a demonstrated commitment to equal justice for all. Americans depend on our court system to resolve disputes as efficiently as possible, and we depend on judges to provide equal consideration and to apply the law without regard to politics or personal agendas. What happened with Caitlin Halligan raises deep concerns about the courts’ future ability to do so. The Senate must end the partisanship, objectively consider all of the nominees who are awaiting confirmation, and act quickly to put an end to this judicial crisis.