President Barack Obama has made another aggressive move this term to fill long-standing federal court vacancies, simultaneously nominating four people to the district court in Arizona, where Republicans stood in the way of confirmations last year.
Obama's en masse nominations to the overworked District of Arizona on Thursday follow his move in June to fill three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and pose yet another challenge to the gridlock in the partisan Senate confirmation process.
The newest nominations—which would fill some vacancies in Arizona relatively quickly—indicate the White House has made headway working with that state's Republican senators, said Russell Wheeler, a Brookings Institution fellow and expert on judicial nominations. But it also highlights the blocks by Republican senators still in place in states like Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin, he said.
"I wouldn't call it lightning speed but it's pretty rapid compared to some of these," Wheeler said. For example, one of the Arizona nominees would replace Judge Roslyn Silver, who took senior status Sept. 3. By contrast, in Texas the average age of vacancies without nominees is almost 700 days, he said
Republican senators have been increasingly willing to use the "blue slip" process—a de facto veto power that lets them block nominees from their home state—during the Obama administration, Wheeler and other experts have said.
Arizona has been one of the prime examples of this, even now. It is a border state overwhelmed with immigration and drug trafficking cases, and in recent years, the state has invariably been included in bills trying to create more federal judgeships.
Obama nominated Rosemary Marquez to become a federal district court judge in June 2011. Marquez is still waiting for a Senate confirmation hearing, now more than two years later.
Last year, Arizona senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, both Republicans, had blocked Marquez's bid for the spot without giving a reason publicly and despite several considered "judicial emergencies" like in Arizona. On Thursday, McCain announced his support for Marquez and the four new nominees. (Kyl retired from the Senate and is now a partner at Covington & Burling. Senator Jeff Flake now has his seat.)
"The need to fill these vacancies is critical as the District of Arizona ranks as one of the top ten busiest district courts in the country," McCain said in a statement. "I urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider these five very capable nominees as soon as possible and allow the full Senate to swiftly confirm them as the district court judges for the District of Arizona."
The six current vacancies in the Arizona District Court account for nearly 9 percent of the nation's vacant district court judgeships, McCain said in a statement.
The nominees are four Arizonans: federal Magistrate Steven Logan; Diane Humetewa, a top lawyer at Arizona State University; John Tuchi, an assistant U.S. attorney; and county Judge Douglas Rayes. If confirmed, Humetewa would be the first Native American woman in the nation to serve on the federal judiciary, the National Native American Bar Association said.
Republicans are still using blue slips to block nominations this year. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is the main enforcer of the Senate tradition, where a judicial nomination can't start its way through the Hill until both home state senators show approval by returning the blue slip.
Georgia Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson have not returned blue slips for Jill Pryor, nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in February 2012. Senator Marco Rubio still has not returned a blue slip for William Thomas, nominated for the Southern District of Florida in November.
The White House has apparently cut a deal with Georgia's senators on judicial nominees, upsetting some of that state's Democratic congressmen, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.
Also on Thursday, Obama nominated four other judges: San Diego Superior Court Judge Cynthia Bashant to the District Court for the Southern District of California; Stanley Allen Bastian, a managing partner of the Wenatchee, Washington law firm Jeffers, Danielson, Sonn & Aylward, to the District Court for the Eastern District of Washington; Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Jon David Levy for the District of Maine; and Manish Shah, an assistant U.S. attorney, for the Northern District of Illinois.