Federal judges, appointed for life, make decisions that impact the lives of Pennsylvanians every day. When laws are enacted that infringe on civil rights, harm the environment or put corporate interests above individual rights, the federal courts are often the last or only resort.
The Post-Gazette ran an editorial April 13 about the potential nomination of corporate lawyer David J. Porter for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (“Bench Pressed: Activists Go Political Against a Prospective Judge”). Recent news reports indicate that Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey plan to nominate Mr. Porter as part of a deal. Mr. Porter is Mr. Toomey’s pick, and in exchange for receiving Mr. Casey’s support, the Democratic senator will be able to nominate candidates for three other vacancies.
Mr. Porter is controversial for a number of reasons. He heads the radical Federalist Society’s Pittsburgh Lawyers Chapter, he helped create a coalition that tried to stop U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, and he is a contributor and trustee at the ultra-conservative Center for Vision and Values. He is anti-choice, anti-marriage equality, pro-gun and pro-corporations.
The Post-Gazette’s editorial took issue with the hyperpartisan nature of appointing federal judges, with this particular nomination being the most recent example. The PG editorial board blames watchdogs on the left and right for making it so difficult to fill judicial vacancies, but the reality is that the hyperpartisan process is solely the result of the obstructionist GOP strategy in Congress since President Barack Obama was elected.
Watchdog groups on the left and the right have always protested potential nominees that they believe are outside the mainstream, but it’s a fact that the Obama administration’s judicial nominees have been waiting far longer for a vote than any previous nominees in American history. That is not the fault of outside groups; that is the fault of lockstep opposition by the Senate GOP.
It is these elected officials who are putting politics over practicality. In this particular instance, it is Mr. Toomey and his allies on the right who so badly want a hardline conservative on the bench that they would be willing to give up three other vacant seats to get him nominated. And Mr. Casey seems set on letting this backroom deal go forward, ignoring the concerns of tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have signed petitions asking him not to.
One of the most important ideals of the American system is the right to have timely access to courts staffed with qualified judges, and that is why filling vacant seats on the bench is so important. Regardless of the issue, the federal courts play a vital role in the lives of all Americans.
It is important that our senators fulfill their constitutional duty to fill these vacancies by putting judges on the bench who understand that the Constitution is about opportunity for all, not just the privileged few. This is about fairness in the judiciary. This is about making sure everyone gets a fair shot.
Progressive groups that have raised concerns over Mr. Porter’s nomination are not saying they want only progressive judges on the bench — that is nonsensical. There is no question that part of a balanced judiciary is having jurists who place themselves at varied points on the ideological spectrum. Groups are raising concerns over Mr. Porter because he would be a hyperpartisan nominee.
Watchdog groups have every right to raise concerns about the ability of Mr. Porter or any nominee with extreme views to be a fair-minded judge. His resume is more than just conservative — it is radically conservative and completely out of the mainstream.
These credentials, along with Sen. Toomey allegedly agreeing to a three-for-one trade to win a nomination for David Porter should be a red flag for Sen. Casey and the White House. It is completely fair for constituents to make sure Sen. Casey is fully aware of their concerns.
Michael Morrill is executive director of Keystone Progress (keystoneprogress.org).