Permit a word of assurance to Wilhelmina Wright: It isn’t you.
It isn’t the fault of the Minnesota Supreme Court associate justice that the U.S. Senate’s requisite vote confirming her appointment to the U.S. District Court for Minnesota has not yet happened, though President Obama sent her name to the Hill more than five months ago.
In fact, by Political Standard Time in the District of Columbia, “Mimi” Wright’s confirmation might be seen as moving on a fast track. Her nomination has at least cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee — with flying colors, I might add. That’s as it should be. Wright is a most impressive jurist who has 13 years as an appellate-level judge in state courts to her credit. In 2012, she became the first African-American woman appointed to the state’s high court.
Wright won the judiciary panel’s approval on Sept. 17 on a voice vote with no dissent. She faces no discernible Republican opposition, despite her nomination by a Democratic president upon the recommendation of Minnesota’s two Democratic U.S. senators. She is now number seven in a group of nine district court nominees waiting for action by the full Senate.
Waiting and waiting …
A vote might come later this year, worriers at the local U.S. courthouse say. That seemed more likely Friday as the threat of a government shutdown eased in the wake of Speaker John Boehner’s announced departure. But if the Tea Party appetite for drama swells again this fall, confirmation of federal judges might be booted to early next year. That’s an election year, and not much happens then. The Iowa caucuses are on Feb. 1, and that will put presidential politics ahead of other concerns … .
And if there’s no action until Obama leaves the White House (voices growing shrill with worry) the whole process will have to start over!
Stay calm, advises U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a former Hennepin County attorney who as Minnesota’s senior senator has been championing Wright’s nomination. Klobuchar is reasonably confident that Wright will soon be going to work in downtown Minneapolis. Why? Among the nominees whose fates now sit with the full Senate are two for federal districts in Iowa — home state of Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley. Presumably, the Iowa Republican doesn’t want to go home for the year without them and can press that urgency upon Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
That presumption would be a surer bet were it not for the Senate’s recent record of not-so-benign neglect of the judicial branch’s personnel needs. As reported by Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell last week, only six federal judges have been confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate so far in 2015. That’s the slowest pace in six decades. It’s allowing a buildup of caseloads in federal courts all over the nation. The number of vacancies on the federal bench has increased from 43 to 67 this year, with 18 more expected by year’s end.
The foot-dragging is seen especially in states with Republican senators, Rampell reports. They’re able to slow the nomination process at several stages, both before and after sending a name to the White House as a recommended appointee.
Why would they do that to courts that serve their own states? It does not appear that Republican senators are finding fault with the president’s recent choices on ideological grounds. The six judges who got through the process to date were all approved with unanimous floor votes; observers predict Wright would similarly win solid Senate backing.
But if GOP senators can delay a presidential appointment, they can make Obama look bad. And if they can stall until 2017, they might be able to recommend a new Republican candidate to a Republican president. For some, that’s a chance worth waiting for.
The damage done by inadequate judicial staffing in the meantime evidently does not figure much in legislative branch thinking — probably because voters seldom pay close attention to the courts. For that, shame on us all — journalists included. The adequacy and trustworthiness of the judicial branch arguably matters as much to the success of American self-governance as anything that happens in the White House or the halls of Congress. When the nation’s pols mess with the courts, people in my profession ought to report it and voters ought to listen up.
At the federal courthouse in Minneapolis, the wait for Wright isn’t particularly disruptive — yet. That’s because the judge she’s succeeding, Michael J. Davis, is still very much on the job despite having assumed “senior status.” Three other “retirees” — David Doty, Paul Magnuson and Richard Kyle — are also still at work. They earn no additional compensation for continuing to serve.
The service of senior judges stretches Minnesota’s federal bench from its seven allotted active judges to 11 — which is now 10 plus one vacancy. That extra legal lifting is essential to the operation of what has long been a district with a high “weighted caseload” — weighted by the complexity of the cases it adjudicates. Minnesota’s concentration of corporate headquarters make it a busy venue for intellectual-property suits and other corporate cases.
“Our senior judges save us,” said Judge John Tunheim, who on Aug. 1 succeeded Davis as this district’s chief judge. That works for now. But already one more active judge, Ann Montgomery, is eligible for senior status, though she has not yet made that move. Donovan Frank becomes eligible next year. And the court can’t depend on senior-status judges to keep working indefinitely.
“It would be very easy to slip into a situation where caseload becomes very difficult, very high,” Tunheim said. That’s burdensome for court personnel and costly for litigants, as cases take longer to resolve. Criminal cases take precedent over civil ones when caseloads grow — even though civil cases in Minnesota tend to be the sort that make a big difference to business bottom lines.
A lot of American institutions are busy passing generational batons these days as the eldest of the baby boomers look forward to their 70th birthdays next year. A lot of them are discovering the importance of managing those leadership handoffs well. It would be a shame — and a dereliction of duty to democracy — if the U.S. Senate allows the judicial branch’s batons to drop as its boomers slow down. And if the rest of us let senators get away with it.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at email@example.com. With this column, she commences her annual disappearing act. Look for her column to resume before Halloween.