Friday, June 7, 2013

Filling vacancies is not ?packing the court?

     President Obama nominated three people to fill empty judicial seats on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals this week. Unless someone amended the U.S. Constitution without telling anyone, the president is responsible for naming justices to federal courts. It is Congress’ job to approve or reject those nominees.

     They include Patricia Ann Millett, an appellate lawyer, Cornelia Pillard, a Georgetown University law professor, and Robert L. Wilkins, a former public defender and currently a U.S. District Court judge. All are recognized as highly qualified and not highly partisan.

     Millet worked in the Bush administration and Wilkins was confirmed without opposition in Obama’s first term. So it is difficult to understand the ruckus that immediately followed the president’s announcement of his nominees.

     Republican leadership in the Senate is charging the president with “packing the court,” a charge that was true for another president—in 1937.

     Angry at decisions attacking major New Deal programs, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed legislation that would have allowed appointment of an additional member to the Supreme Court for every sitting justice over the age of 70. This would have resulted in a total of six new justices and would have allowed him to pack the court with Roosevelt supporters.

     Packing the court didn’t happen then and it isn’t happening now. One would hope that sitting senators might know the difference between packing the court and filling empty seats on the bench. Instead, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seem to be going out of their way to conflate those concepts, thereby having a politically palatable way to leave federal benches empty.

     To what purpose? Among the many ways in which our system of checks and balances is now historically out of whack, putting justices, even the best justices possible, into our courts has become next to impossible. Without enough judges to handle the workloads, justice is delayed and eventually denied.

     When McConnell on Tuesday signaled he might not let any of Obama’s nominees to the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals come to a vote, no matter how qualified those nominees, he ignored his constitutional responsibility.

     He’s apparently counting on being able to confuse voters with loaded phrases and to take attention away from the insidious undermining of our constitutional system now under way.

     By not falling for this “packing the court” smokescreen, voters can force an end to a very dangerous game.

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