WASHINGTON – Buffalo’s two vacant federal judgeships became a topic of debate on the Senate floor Thursday, as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, pressed Republican leaders about their slow pace in confirming new judges from New York and all across the country.
Republicans leaders responded by saying they are on a similar pace for confirmation as when Democrats controlled the chamber late in President George W. Bush’s administration. In addition, one of Schumer’s two nominations for Western New York has not yet won White House support.
Noting that there’s a 10 percent vacancy rate among federal judges nationwide, the New York Democrat focused most intensely on Western New York, where two vacancies exist and where retired judges in senior status are continue to take cases.
“The Western District of New York has one of the busiest caseloads in the country,” Schumer said. “It handles more criminal cases than Washington, D.C., or Boston, or Cleveland. The delays for civil trials are by far the worst in the country. And yet – they don’t have a single active federal district judge. If not for the efforts of the two judges on senior status who are volunteering to hear cases in their retirement, the Western District would be at a full judicial standstill.”
The Senate has confirmed only five federal judges so far this year. That compares with 25 in 2007, another year when Senate control changed hands, with the Democrats taking over that year in the seventh year of the George W. Bush presidency, just as Republicans took Senate control in this, the seventh year of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Schumer called the slow pace of judicial confirmations “a disgrace” and asked the Senate to move forward on the pending nominations immediately.
But the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, refused to do so.
Grassley noted that during Obama’s presidency, the Senate has confirmed 313 judicial nominations, compared with only 283 at a comparable point of the George W. Bush presidency.
The pace of confirmations this year has been slowed, in part, by the Judiciary Committee’s time-consuming task of confirming a new attorney general and deputy attorney general, Grassley said.
Besides, “everybody knows that end of last year, the Senate rammed through 11 judges which under regular order – and regular order is very important in the Senate – should have been considered at the beginning of this Congress,” Grassley said.
If you combine those 11 judges with the five the Senate has confirmed this year, the current pace of judicial confirmations is roughly comparable to the 2007 pace, Grassley said.
“So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Senator,” Grassley said to Schumer.
Grassley said the Senate will begin considering judicial confirmations again after its August recess, noting that several of the 13 pending nominations are in line for confirmation before three nominees from New York.
Schumer focused in his remarks on Lawrence J. Vilardo, the Harvard-educated Buffalo attorney he nominated to succeed U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Arcara. The Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed Vilardo’s nomination in June, but it has not yet reached the Senate floor.
“Like so many other people from the region, the city has made him tough, levelheaded, fair and decent,” Schumer said of Vilardo. “And, as the first in his family to graduate from college, he adds an important element of socioeconomic diversity to the court. The people of the Western District of New York will be incredibly lucky to have him on the bench.”
Schumer made no mention of Denise E. O’Donnell, the former U.S. attorney in Buffalo whom he recommended 13 months ago to replace retiring U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny.
Whereas Obama officially nominated Vilardo for his post in February, the president has not yet done so with O’Donnell, leaving her nomination in limbo.
Asked for comment, White House spokesman Keith Maley said: “We will decline to speculate about any nominations ahead of when the president makes them.”
Meanwhile, a Schumer spokesman, Jason Kaplan, said: “Sen. Schumer continues to support his recommendation of Denise O’Donnell to the federal bench and is doing all he can to move her forward with the administration.”