New legal year’s resolution - for justice

The executive and legislative branches are charged with filling those judgeships, but the nomination processes is needlessly divisive, contributing to the critically low number of federal judges. Delay and acrimony are the order of the day, but the timely execution of justice is imperiled.

The numbers tell the story. Since 2000 the number of criminal cases pending before all district courts has swelled by more than 60 percent. In that same period the number of pending appellate court cases has grown more than 25 percent.

Despite burgeoning caseloads, the number of judicial vacancies has ballooned in recent years.  In fact, 48 of these vacancies are classified as “judicial emergencies” by the U.S. Judicial Conference.

It is important that the Senate only consent to placing the most qualified individuals on the bench. Competency to sit as a judge should be the fulcrum that all other considerations pivot around. No one expects a senator to ignore a nominee’s viewpoints, but members of both parties should focus on a nominee’s qualifications.

It’s been more than 50 years since President Eisenhower asked the American Bar Association to begin evaluating candidates for nomination to the federal courts. The ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has provided exhaustive, unbiased peer-evaluations of potential court nominees to five Republican and five Democratic administrations at their request. The ABA Standing Committee provides these reviews to give the executive and legislative branches a nonpolitical assessment of a candidate’s qualifications to serve as a federal judge.

To date, the Standing Committee has reviewed 89 individuals formally nominated to lower courts by President Obama. Each nominee has been rated as either well-qualified or qualified by the Standing Committee. But the wait times before a Senate vote are often unbelievable. The last nominee approved by the Senate waited more than 400 days between nomination by the president and final Senate action.

Right now there are 23 judicial nominees already cleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee who are waiting for a Senate floor vote. For 16 of them, no one is on record opposing them.

With vacancies at a crisis level, our federal courts are taxed beyond any normal measure. The 16 noncontroversial nominees present an opportunity for the Senate to put aside the rancor and partisanship, and with a few floor votes do much in the interest of justice.   

Steven N. Zack is president of the American Bar Association.