President Obama's judicial nominations are finally being approved, thanks to the filibuster reform Senate Democrats approved last year, allowing for simple majority votes to advance judicial and executive nominations. In fact, confirmation of Obama's judicial nominees is outpacing the rate for the two previous presidents.
Before the Senate left town for recess last week, it confirmed the president's 52nd circuit nominee, Pamela Harris, to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, by a vote of 50-43.Outpacing his predecessors this year doesn't catch Obama up with nominations, though, largely because vacancies have been increasing in the last two years, whereas they declined for both Clinton and Bush in the fifth and sixth years of their terms. The White House, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have made getting judges through this year a priority, and it's mostly working, but still slowed by Republican foot-dragging.
At the end of his sixth year, George W. Bush confirmed 51 circuit judges; Bill Clinton confirmed 50 circuit judges.
The Senate has been historically unproductive in the 113th Congress but Democrats have worked to speedily confirm Obama nominees before the November elections, when Republicans have a serious chance at regaining control.
Senate Republicans have been thwarting the process in a number of ways, from refusing to provide Obama with candidates for nomination, as is traditionally considered part of their duty, and in holding back "blue slips," the traditional courtesy that allows home state senators to advance nominations in the Judiciary Committee. And when a nominee gets through committee, Republicans insist on using up every bit of debate time the rules currently allow them, making the process of confirming these nominees excruciatingly slow.
But last year's reforms are still helping move nominees, so Senate Democrats should be encouraged about enacting further reforms on nominations. They have two opportunities, short of the full-on nuclear option dealing away with filibusters entirely. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy could forego the blue-slip process and get nominees through his committee more quickly. And Democrats could reform the Senate rules to limit the amount of time for debate on nominees. The "use it or lose it" reform would do just that—if Republicans aren't using debate time to actually debate a nominee, they forfeit it. These are some pretty commonsense reforms that could ease the ongoing crisis in judicial vacancies.