The chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said last night that he does not expect the court to try any civil cases during the spring or summer, as it struggles to move through its load of Guantanamo habeas cases.
Chief Judge Royce Lamberth made his remark during a lecture in honor of the late Judge Thomas Flannery, before a packed crowd of lawyers and judges in the courthouse’s Ceremonial Courtroom. In attendance was Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., who introduced the judge before his speech.
The comment was meant to illustrate the necessity of filling judicial vacancies quickly in order to keep the court system running smoothly. For months now, the Guantanamo docket has weighed down on the district court, where there are roughly 220 habeas claims pending. The court has been hampered by three vacancies, and judges have been quick to note the logistical problems Guantanamo has created. Lamberth said criminal cases would go on in order to meet speedy trial requirements.
In his speech, the Lamberth excoriated both Republicans and Democrats for the partisan battles that have slowed the judicial confirmation process. An emphasis on ideology rather than competency has poisoned the appointment process, he said.
Recalling the six month battle over his own nomination, Lamberth, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan and joined the court in 1987, pointed out that many judges now wait two years or more without ever receiving a vote.
The rancor has kept many competent lawyers and judges from trying to join the federal bench, he said.
“I say to both Republicans and Democrats, you’re injuring the federal judiciary,” Lamberth said.
Lamberth also urged President Barack Obama to rethink his criteria for picking judges, criticizing the president’s campaign trail statement that a nominee’s entire worldview should be scrutinized.
Good judges “divorce” their beliefs and views from their decisions, he said. Lamberth also cautioned U.S. Senators, who often recommend judicial nominees to the White House, against trying to force their own choices on the president.
The comment seemed to have bearing on D.C. in particular. Last week, Legal Times reported that Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was in talks with the White House about reviving her judicial nomination commission. Under the Clinton administration, her commission had recommended a single nominee to the White House for each of the District’s judicial vacancies.
“Those who want to submit one name, instead of three or a panel for [the president’s] consideration are asking him to abdicate his responsibility,” Lamberth said.
Asked after the speech when there would be a process in place for picking D.C.’s federal judges, Attorney General Holder responded, “Soon.”