OBSTRUCTING JUSTICE: On May 19, Senate Republicans blocked an up-or-down vote on Goodwin Liu, the University of California, Berkeley, law professor nominated by President Obama to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu was the first judicial nominee to be successfully filibustered since George W. Bush was in office, when Senate Democrats blocked votes on ten nominees.
On paper, Liu’s résumé was perfect: degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Yale; a Supreme Court clerkship for Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and a distinguished record of teaching and writing on constitutional law. Liu testified that a judge’s role is “to faithfully follow the Supreme Court’s instructions.” Yet Republicans portrayed Liu as a fringe academic who would pursue a radical agenda from the bench.
The Liu filibuster prompted accusations of GOP hypocrisy: the same senators who opposed him were calling the filibuster unconstitutional during the Bush years. But Liu’s scuttled nomination is better understood as part of a bigger problem: the ongoing crisis facing federal courts. Any one failed nomination might not matter so much if Obama had a bullpen of backups, but thus far his administration has been slow to nominate (though the pace has picked up in recent months). There are sixteen appeals court vacancies nationwide, but only ten Obama nominees pending. District court numbers are worse: seventy vacancies and thirty-seven nominees. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have stalled confirmations through a variety of tactics less dramatic than the filibuster. Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, wrote that the Liu filibuster was a travesty, and it is now “more important than ever that the President and the Senate…significantly accelerate the pace of nominations and confirmations.”
Liu was nominated to fill a judicial slot added in 2009 to alleviate the crushing caseloads of the largest federal appellate court. With jurisdiction over nine states, including California, the Ninth Circuit handles one in every five federal appeals. Between Obama’s cautious approach to nominations and the GOP’s obstructionism, litigants in the American West will continue to face long waits for justice. SARA MAYEUX
INCARCERATION NATION: “If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967, speaking at New York’s Riverside Church. King was speaking against the Vietnam War, yet the metaphor could apply today to the millions of Americans living behind bars. In 1967 the US prison population was less than 200,000. Today the number is more than 2.3 million. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world—higher than in Russia, China or Iran—and the vast majority of US prisoners are people of color.