November 19, 2009

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats beat back Jeff Sessions’ filibuster of Obama’s first judicial nominee – Judge David Hamilton – by a reassuring margin of 70-29. Sessions lost ten of his fellow Republicans, including conservatives like Hatch, Cornyn, and Thune, and Hamilton will be confirmed Thursday afternoon to the Seventh Circuit.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the GOP is winning the battle for the federal courts.

Just a few short years ago, right-wing Senators denounced filibusters of President Bush’s nominees in the strongest possible language and threatened to employ the “nuclear option.” Sessions went even further – he claimed Democrats were violating the Constitution by blocking any Bush nominee (no matter how extreme). But some time after November 4, 2008, his interpretation of the Constitution must have changed dramatically.

Now a Democrat is in the White House, and – hypocrisy be damned! – Sessions is vehemently pro-filibuster and pro-obstruction. And the worst part is that he’s been successful. Judge Hamilton was nominated in March to general acclaim. He received the highest possible rating from the ABA, both his home-state Senators strongly endorsed him (including senior Senate Republican Dick Lugar), and even the head of the Indianapolis Federalist Society backed him. It doesn’t get much better than that.

But the nomination was dragged out for months by the GOP. As a result, Hamilton will become just the seventh Obama nominee to be confirmed to the federal bench. By contrast, nearly 30 such Bush nominees had been confirmed at the same point. We’re talking lifetime appointments to the highest courts in our land. President Obama obviously has his hands full, but he can’t afford to neglect this crucial aspect of his legacy.

But so far, Obama has been playing into the hands of the GOP obstructionists. He’s nominated fewer than half as many people as Bush had at this point. That has got to change, and quickly. The Obama administration has a window of just 4-5 months to return some semblance of balance to the federal bench before the mid-term elections. The choice is simple: act now to fill the judicial pipeline with highly qualified progressive nominees, or let Sessions and Bush win.

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