Why You Should Care about Judicial Nominations
The composition of the federal judiciary is a civil rights issue of profound importance to all Americans. The individuals charged with dispensing justice in our society have a direct impact on civil rights protections for all. As such, the federal judiciary must be perceived by the public as an instrument of justice, and the individuals who are selected for this branch of government must be the embodiment of fairness and impartiality.
The federal courts of appeal exercise enormous power in deciding cases that determine the rights of all Americans in such areas as civil rights, rights to privacy, rights of workers, and rights of women.
- The vast majority of cases never make it to the Supreme Court, but are decided by the federal courts of appeal. The Supreme Court hears only about 80 cases each year, while federal appellate courts decide 28,000 cases, publishing 5,500 to 6,000 opinions each year. Nearly every circuit court decision is final, since the Supreme Court refuses to hear over 99 percent of the cases appealed to the court. In effect, many circuit court rulings are the final word on our rights, making the selection of appellate court judges extremely important to all.
- The circuit courts also produce most U.S. Supreme Court justices, particularly the District of Columbia Circuit. Seven of the nine current members were circuit court judges when nominated for the Supreme Court. Three of those seven justices (Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) were elevated to the Supreme Court from the D.C. Circuit.
During his eight-year tenure in office, President Clinton appointed more women and African Americans to the federal judiciary than Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush combined. His ability to fill key positions, however, was greatly limited by an often-hostile Senate. As a result, many seats on the federal bench went unfilled.
- A 2000 report by the Alliance for Justice that even as the average delay by the Senate in acting on all nominations became greater during President Clinton's tenure, women and minority nominees were delayed even longer by the Senate.
- During this period, nominations of minorities failed at a rate more than double that of white candidates.
- In 2000, there were fewer African American judges on the federal courts of appeals than when Jimmy Carter was president in 1980; no African American judges on the First or Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal; and no Hispanic judges on the D.C., Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeal
Article II of the Constitution provides the President with the power to nominate federal judges, subject to the "advice and consent" of the Senate. In designing this structure for sharing power between the executive and legislative branches, the founders intended to ensure an independent federal judiciary. Such independence is critical, since federal judges receive lifetime appointments and are called upon to make critical decisions affecting the interpretation and enforcement of the Constitution, federal civil rights laws, and other key protections. Because of this, civil rights advocates have long monitored the integrity of the processes for nominating and confirming judicial and other key federal appointments - insisting that such processes be fair, open, and balanced.
- Nominees to these courts merit close scrutiny. Nominees must be able to demonstrate that they will be impartial arbiters of the law so that litigants will reasonably be able to feel that they are receiving a fair hearing.
- The federal courts should not be packed with extreme ideologues who have demonstrated that they will use their own ideology - and not legal precedent - to decide cases. Federal judges have the power to severely limit the protection of women's rights, racial and religious minorities' rights, equal employment opportunity, the workers' rights and consumers' rights.
- Federal judges must interpret the law fairly, based on judicial precedent and common sense, rather than on their own personal ideological goals.
Anyone committed to social justice and equal rights must concern themselves with the caliber of those officials nominated or appointed by the President to protect our civil rights and with protecting the independent judiciary.