The partisanship surrounding the federal judiciary briefly melted away last Congress when Democrats and Republicans supported a bill to increase the number of judgeships. This year, the polarization is back.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation Tuesday that would add nine permanent seats to the circuit courts and 38 to the district courts. It would also add some temporary judgeships on both levels, make five temporary judgeships permanent, and extend a temporary judgeship in the Northern District of Ohio.
The bill has 17 cosponsors — all Democrats. Last year, a similar bill from Leahy drew 21 cosponsors, including six Republicans. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former Judiciary Committee chairman, was among the earlier supporters.
A major reason for the change is the new bill’s effective date. It would become law immediately after passage, giving President Barack Obama more opportunities to influence the next generation of the judiciary. The previous bill, introduced in March 2008 well before the November election, would have taken effect Jan. 21, 2009, the day after the new president’s inauguration.
Hatch, for one, would consider cosponsoring the bill again if the effective date were changed to Jan. 21, 2013, a Republican aide said today.
But Democrats contend that a postponed effective date has been the exception, not the rule, for proposals of this kind. The last comprehensive bill was in 1990, when a Democratic Congress and a Republican president agreed on an immediate increase. Other bills since then also would have been effective immediately — including bills that Hatch sponsored in 2000 and 2003.
“These additional judgeships would help to alleviate the significant increase in caseloads that the federal courts have seen over the nearly two decades since the last comprehensive judgeship bill was enacted,” Leahy said in prepared remarks Tuesday.
Another obstacle facing Leahy’s bill: the fact that there are 93 current vacancies. Republicans are likely to demand that Obama fill those before they agree to create more judgeships, though that task will of course be made more difficult because GOP senators are opposing some of Obama’s nominees.