CONTRIBUTORS

Stop playing politics with federal court

Posted June 16, 2013, at 10:04 a.m.
Sen. Susan Collins
Sen. Susan Collins

I don’t understand. In November 2012, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to urge swift confirmation of local attorney William Kayatta as a federal judge in the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Maine.

When Kayatta was confirmed in February — 13 months after his nomination — Collins said, “The people who rely on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit waited far too long for a full complement of judges.”

Then on May 23, Collins and the Senate voted unanimously to confirm Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He was the first justice to be appointed to the court in seven years. Seven years. And there are still three vacant seats.

But also on May 23, Collins signed on as a cosponsor of legislation proposed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to eliminate the three vacant positions on the D.C. court.

More troubling, she was part of the filibuster in March to block the nomination of Caitlin Halligan, who was first nominated to the D.C. court in May 2010 but withdrew her nomination in April of this year because of the filibuster. The Republicans, including Collins, refused to let the matter come to a vote. Members of Congress who said that filibustering court nominations is unconstitutional during the Bush administration nonetheless filibustered Halligan. As explanation, Collins said the D.C. Circuit didn’t need any more justices.

Why? Aren’t the people who rely on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit also entitled to timely decisions? Don’t they deserve the full complement of appointed justices? The D.C. Circuit is not relegated to simple matters occurring within the borders of Washington, D.C.; it decides matters of administration of Congress, making it the most powerful circuit in the land. It is considered a “feeder court” to the Supreme Court. Indeed, it was Justice John Roberts’ seat just filled by Srinivasan, which has been vacant since 2005.

It is the D.C. Circuit Court that decided many unpopular cases, including Canning v. National Labor Relations Board, which held that the president had no right to make recess appointments, and in EME Homer City Generation v. the Environmental Protection Agency that the EPA could not make rules over air which passes from state to state. It struck down a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rule to increase corporate accountability to shareholders; and the list goes on. This is why the Republicans have made it their priority to block the president’s nominations.

Collins voted to confirm three judges to that court when George W. Bush was president, including twice voting to fill the 10th seat and once to fill the 11th seat.

With eight justices now seated, there are four appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democrats, which makes things even, right? Not quite.

There are still 11 seats, and thus the remaining seats are filled with “senior” justices, justices who have retired. That tips the balance, and it is that balance that the Republicans in the Senate wish to preserve.

The Democrats hold the majority in the Senate, while the Republicans hold the House. This may change in November 2014, but the Senate Republicans are not willing to take that chance at this point. They are counting on the courts to decide what they cannot make happen in the legislative branch. The D.C. Circuit decides federal agency decisions, statutes and presidential actions, so this is “second best” to having majorities in both houses.

Because the federal courts decide critical issues that affect the daily lives of Americans, we need a fully staffed and functional court system. Our elected representatives need to ensure that we have one. President Barack Obama recently presented three new nominations to the D.C. Circuit. Call on Collins to stop playing politics with the court system, to end the filibusters to all federal courts, and to vote on these nominees, one way or the other.

Megan D. Hannan of Bath is a member of Courts Matter to Maine, a nonpartisan advocacy group to assure all federal court seats are assured a vote and filled.

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