Chief Justice Decries Brawling Over Judicial Nominees

January 1, 2011

By JESS BRAVIN, The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Chief Justice John Roberts decried the partisan warfare that has slowed the appointment of federal judges to a crawl, writing in his year-end report Friday that political gamesmanship on Capitol Hill has left some courts burdened with “extraordinary caseloads.”

“Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes,” the chief justice wrote. He called on Congress and the president “to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.”

The chief justice, a 2005 appointee of former President George W. Bush, took no position on any specific nominee, nor did he identify lawmakers by name in the annual report, which customarily includes figures on the court system’s workload and a plea for more money.

But while styled as a condemnation of both parties, in practical terms the message was a knock against Senate Republicans, who have fought to minimize the imprint President Barack Obama leaves on the federal bench.

The Senate confirmed 19 judicial nominees in December, making a total of 62 since Mr. Obama took office, including Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. At the same point in Mr. Bush’s presidency, the Senate had confirmed 100 judicial nominees.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) disputed the chief justice’s suggestion that Democrats and Republicans had merely reversed roles since Mr. Obama’s election.

“Democrats tried to turn the page on the obstruction of the 1990s when the Democratic majority of the Senate worked to confirm 100 judicial nominees in the first two years of the Bush administration,” he said in a statement.

“In this Congress, Republicans compounded the vacancy crisis by turning away from the Senate’s long-held tradition of promptly considering non-controversial nominees, even those supported by Republican home-state senators.”

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, could not be reached for comment Friday.

For years, both Democrats and Republicans have labeled as extremists judicial nominees picked by the opposing party’s president, and they have marshaled reams of statistics intended to demonstrate that they are more fair-minded than their political adversaries when considering judicial candidates.

During Mr. Bush’s presidency, Democrats’ resistance broke only when a bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators cut a deal to approve most of the blocked nominees while letting a few of the most-controversial nominees languish.

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