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Another Voice: Nominee to federal court deserves a Senate vote

By Carl Tobias

On March 15, President Obama nominated Kathleen Sweet, a longtime Buffalo lawyer, for a vacancy on the Western District of New York federal court. She is a well-qualified, mainstream nominee who enjoys the powerful support of New York Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sweet’s nomination on Sept. 8 without dissent. However, the nominee has languished on the floor ever since, mainly due to GOP leaders’ refusal to allow her confirmation debate and vote.

Because Sweet is an experienced, consensus nominee and the Western District of New York needs this vacancy filled, the Senate must promptly conduct her final debate and vote.

The district should have four active judges, meaning the court lacks 25 percent of its complement, which frustrates efforts to promptly, inexpensively and fairly resolve disputes. Because criminal prosecutions receive precedence under the Speedy Trial Act, litigants participating in civil suits experience difficulty securing trial dates and concluding their litigation.

Deciding cases without one-fourth of the authorized judgeships places increased pressure on the court’s judges. Indeed, the vacancy that Sweet would fill has been declared a “judicial emergency” because it has remained open 617 days.

The White House press release observed that Sweet had practiced law at three fine Buffalo law firms since 1992.

The New York senators introduced Sweet at the hearing on June 21, praising her strong qualifications, and called for prompt Senate confirmation. That hearing proceeded smoothly, and the senators who asked questions seemed satisfied with Sweet’s responses. On Sept. 8, the panel approved her on a voice vote with little discussion and no controversy.

Since September, Sweet’s nomination has languished, awaiting a final debate and vote. Senate GOP leaders have maintained that they are returning the upper chamber to “regular order.”

Nevertheless, Sweet and many other highly qualified, moderate nominees have waited months for debates and votes. The New York senators have requested a prompt floor vote, yet Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has failed to arrange it.

Numerous Democratic senators have sought unanimous consent to vote on Sweet and 19 remaining district court nominees who need final votes, but other members have objected. If the GOP had followed regular order, Sweet would have received a floor vote long ago. However, in late September, the Senate left to campaign.

It is past time for the Senate to vote on Kathleen Sweet. She is a strong, consensus nominee whom both New York senators support. Moreover, the district must have all of its active judges to deliver justice. The district’s judiciary as well as individuals and corporations litigating in federal court deserve a full bench, while Sweet merits a final vote. Thus, senators must conduct Sweet’s debate and vote when they return for the lame-duck session.

Carl Tobias is the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond.

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