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Senators must stop filibustering well-qualified judicial appointments

Democrats may have started down the dark road of blocking judicial appointments on political grounds in the nasty scrum over the 1987 Supreme Court nomination of conservative Robert H. Bork, but Republicans have now made delaying virtually any nominee into a mad science. It needs to end.

President Obama has been blocked from filling any of the four vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That panel is considered the country’s most prestigious appellate court because it hears major federal cases. It is also seen as a steppingstone to the Supreme Court.

Blocking well-qualified nominees put forth by the president has consequences that go far beyond political gamesmanship.

What should be an 11-member panel currently consists of four judges appointed by Republican presidents and three appointed by Democrat Bill Clinton. An understaffed court makes it difficult for the remaining judges to properly carry out their duties. Russell Wheeler, a Brookings Institution scholar who studies the federal courts, has written that delays in sorting out contractual disputes, along with other matters left unresolved, will have an economic impact. Not to mention the injustice created by delays in hearing criminal appeals and claims of discrimination and civil liberties violations.

If that is not enough, the failure to promptly fill judicial vacancies discourages well-qualified candidates from ever seeking judgeships.

Such became the case with the recent filibuster of Caitlin J. Halligan’s nomination to the District of Columbia appeals court. Senators agreed years ago that they would not filibuster judicial nominees except in case of “extraordinary circumstances.” The extraordinary circumstance in Halligan’s case involved her work as New York’s solicitor general for the state of New York, specifically on a case against gun manufacturers.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, rushed to her defense. But after the Senate was prevented from voting on her a second time last month, Halligan asked that her nomination be withdrawn.

Republicans will soon have another chance to allow a vote on an Obama nominee, one with such solid credentials that he should be easily confirmed.

Both liberals and conservatives have been busy writing letters of support for Sri Srinivasan. By all accounts a rising star, the 46-year-old is seen as a potential Supreme Court candidate. He would become the first appeals court judge of South Asian heritage and has argued two dozen cases before the Supreme Court – on both the left and right sides of the argument.

He lined up with the Obama administration’s point of view last month over the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. But he has also worked as a clerk to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Ronald Reagan appointee, and taken on non-liberal cases.

The once-routine process of the Senate confirming a president’s well-qualified judicial nominees is now caught up in Washington’s political gridlock. Both parties need to agree to stop the practice of filibustering judicial nominees. The nation deserves no less.