Politics have kept key federal court judgeships vacant
Four of the D.C. Circuit Court's 11 seats have been left vacant due to congressional obstruction. (DOJ)
Over the past four years, the federal halls of justice have been left partially hollow as the number of judicial vacancies in the federal courts continues to mount—due to foot-dragging on nominations and partisan filibuster once nominations are made. These vacancies hobble the courts’ ability to do their core work, which includes determining the fate of our most important environmental protections.
Take, for example, President Obama’s nomination of Caitlin Halligan for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In 2010, the president nominated Halligan, praising her “excellence and unwavering integrity,” yet two years later the Senate has twice refused to confirm her to this environmentally critical court. Halligan, a distinguished litigator who has argued five cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, is well-qualified for a seat on the D.C. Circuit. Yet despite bipartisan support and several high profile endorsements from law enforcement organizations and leaders, last week Halligan was forced to suffer through a second politically motivated filibuster that Senate GOP’s justified by willfully misrepresenting her record.
The D.C. Circuit Court may not be familiar to most Americans, but it should be. In the United States, courts are responsible for securing our civil liberties by allowing the right of every individual to claim the protection of the laws. By empowering citizens to prevent corporations and the government from operating outside of the law, courts level the playing field and ensure that ours remains a nation of laws.
Of the nation’s courts, the D.C. Circuit is second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in its environmental importance, and is often required to provide the last word on critical issues of national significance, including those issues that fall under landmark environmental statutes like the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the nation’s hazardous waste laws. The D.C. Circuit’s influence is not limited to environmental cases, however. From food safety and workers’ rights to the integrity of our elections, the court wields extraordinary authority and influence.
Despite the court’s significance, four of its 11 seats have been left vacant due to congressional obstruction from Senate Republicans bent on trampling the duty and ability of President Obama to adequately staff the judiciary. In more than fifty years, he is the first president not to have a single judge confirmed to the D.C. Circuit during his first full term. Meanwhile, courts are left understaffed and overtasked.
Again and again, the D.C. Circuit has played an essential role in ensuring that Americans receive the full protection of our environmental laws. During the second Bush administration, for instance, the D.C. Circuit rejected EPA’s effort to convert the Clean Air Act into a statute that would allow power plants and other facilities to increase significantly the pollution they emit without government review.
And just last week, the court heard another critically important environment case where Earthjustice, together with the Appalachian Mountain Advocates, represents a number of groups in defending the EPA’s veto of the Spruce No. 1 mountaintop removal coal mine against the attacks of a disgruntled coal industry. If the D.C. Circuit allows this mine to go forward—in violation of the Clean Water Act—this mine would destroy more than 2,000 mountain acres, bury more than six miles of West Virginia streams with mining waste, and pollute downstream waterways.
The vacancies on the D.C. Circuit must be filled with qualified candidates such as Halligan, who has long worked to protect Americans and has received the American Bar Association’s highest rating. This month, thousands of supporters like you stood behind Halligan and in the defense of justice by telling the Senate to confirm Halligan to the D.C. Circuit. Unfortunately, all but one Republican senator chose to put partisan gamesmanship above the nation’s well-being by blocking a yes-or-no vote on her nomination. As a result, Earthjustice is continuing our work on the Hill, alongside partners like the Alliance for Justice, the Center for American Progress and others, to ensure that the D.C. Circuit—and all who appear before it—will no longer suffer the effects of a historic vacancy crisis.
Thank you for taking action. After all, laws on the books protect no one if they’re left unenforced. We will continue to carry this fight forward—and are grateful to have supporters like you by our side.