We applaud the U.S. Senate’s long-overdue confirmation of Cape Elizabeth attorney William Kayatta Jr. and congratulate him on his appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First District.
Kayatta’s distinguished career as a litigator and his commitment to justice, as exemplified by a Maine Bar Foundation’s Howard J. Dana Award he received in 2010 for service to low-income Mainers, unquestionably qualified him for a position on the federal bench. It’s a travesty that he — and those who rely on the Boston-based appeals court to settle time-sensitive legal questions — had to wait more than a year from the time President Barack Obama nominated Kayatta until the Senate voted 88-12 Wednesday to confirm his appointment.
The First District appeals court, which is one step below the Supreme Court, functioned more than a year without a full complement of active judges, after Judge Kermit Lipez switched to active senior status at the end of 2011.
Although Kayatta won endorsement from the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 16-2 vote in April, his nomination languished for the remainder of 2012 after Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in June invoked the unofficial “Thurmond rule” to block consideration of lifetime federal judicial nominations during the late stages of a presidential election year.
Kayatta’s original nomination expired at the end of 2012, forcing Obama to renominate him last month and necessitating another hearing and committee vote on his renomination. Finally, on Wednesday, the full Senate easily confirmed Kayatta’s nomination, ending a partisan standoff that prevented confirmation votes on more than 30 pending federal judicial nominations.
In a statement released after his confirmation, Kayatta, a Democrat, praised Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, for her “unwavering leadership in marshalling my nomination through the Senate from beginning to end.”
Collins was persistent in advocating for Kayatta’s nomination. She should now parlay that success, and her new position as Maine’s senior senator, to spur fellow Senate Republicans to drop their stonewalling on other judicial nominations.
As of Friday, 89 vacancies exist on the roster of federal judges, with 35 nominees awaiting votes on their confirmations. That list does not include Maine U.S. District Court Judge George Singal, who will switch from active to senior status in July.
Leaving nearly 10 percent of federal judgeships open creates caseload backlogs and impairs the courts, especially when it comes to resolving civil cases, according to Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor with expertise on the federal judicial nomination process.
Delaying confirmation votes on federal judicial nominees also injects politics into a branch of government from which it should be shielded and threatens to erode the quality of the federal bench.
“When great people like Kayatta have to wait a year, that discourages superb people from considering bench service,” Tobias said.
The presidential election is over, and Senate Republicans should set aside their resistance to floor votes on nominees for federal court vacancies. If not, the GOP should be held accountable for the damage that trial delays and short-staffed federal benches do to the nation’s legal system.
Collins doggedly led a bipartisan effort to send Kayatta’s nomination to a floor vote and was a member of the “Gang of 14,” a group of Republican and Democratic senators who helped overcome a similar Senate institutional impasse over some of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees in 2005-06.
That experience gives her the credibility to convince her GOP peers that they could suffer greater political harm by being blamed for a bogged-down court system than from pressure exerted by conservative groups to keep Obama nominees off the federal bench by stalling their confirmation votes.
While she’s at it, Collins — and Maine’s new independent Sen. Angus King — should urge every member of the Senate to commit to applying the Thurmond rule no earlier than Labor Day.
Perhaps they could call it the Kayatta rule.