It is possible that a majority of the U.S. Senate, in the face of the Republican minority’s latest use of a filibuster to obstruct three more judge nominations, is ready to change the rules so that a simple majority of votes, instead of 60, are needed to end debate on presidential appointments.
Ninety-two vacancies exist among 850 federal judge positions on U.S. district and appellate courts across the country. That means nearly one in nine seats is empty. Some 38 of these are on courts that are overburdened in their caseloads. Even Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, has urged the Senate to act expeditiously on the nominations, given the courts’ dilemma.
At some point, the Republicans’ continued blockage, to prevent President Barack Obama from naming any judges at all (one of a president’s primary functions), could be construed as an attack on the American system of justice itself. The absence of judges on these courts inevitably can lead to unjust trial delays, damaging the rights of all involved.
A country that does not have a functioning justice system is a country one step closer to failed-state status. Civil rights are at risk, and on the economic side contracts cannot be enforced, a development that is ruinous to trade and investment.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, has threatened to use his party’s strength to change Senate rules so that a 51-vote majority is needed to cut off debate on a president’s Cabinet and senior judicial appointments. Mr. Reid appears this week to want to make that change on an urgent basis.
In the past, Democratic hesitation has stemmed from concern at having to live with the consequences in the future, if Republicans win control of the White House and the Senate. But taking that road — cutting off a filibuster on these nominations with 51 votes — is more than justified by the country’s need for judges and the speedier justice they can bring all citizens.