Benched by the Senate: Who Made It Through in Last-Minute Confirmations

WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats and the Obama administration took full advantage of the extended legislative session on the $1.1 trillion spending plan that ended on Dec. 16, using the extra time to confirm a dozen nominees to federal judgeships that could result in a lasting imprint on the courts.

In all, the upper chamber confirmed 17 judges to various court levels in December, most by voice vote. The action leaves 42 vacancies in a federal judiciary that totals 874.

Since November 2013, when Democrats employed a parliamentary maneuver to change Senate rules prohibiting filibusters on any judicial nominees save for those nominated to the Supreme Court, the chamber has confirmed 132 judgeships. Prior to the rules change, virulently opposed by Republicans, Obama witnessed only 45 judicial confirmations in 2013 and 49 in 2012.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, said the chamber was able to reach that high-water mark thanks to his decision to deploy what has been characterized as the “nuclear option.”

“Throughout the 113th Congress, Senate Democrats have focused on confirming well-qualified judicial nominees to relieve the judge shortage plaguing our nation’s justice system," Reid said. "Despite unprecedented obstruction, today’s statistics show that Senate Democrats were able to overcome political gridlock and confirm the highest number of district and circuit court judges in a single Congress in over thirty years."

After six years in office, President Obama has managed to see 305 of his district and circuit court nominees confirmed – a success rate unmatched by any of his predecessors over a similar period.

By comparison, President George W. Bush, Obama’s immediate predecessor, managed to gain confirmation of 256 district and circuit court nominees after six years in office. President Bill Clinton  got 302 confirmed and President Ronald Reagan confirmed 295.

According to the White House, 42 percent of Obama's confirmed judges are women, 19 percent are African-American, and 11 percent are Hispanic. Eleven are openly gay or lesbian.

Of the final 12 nominees squeezed in at the session’s close, Robert Pitman will become the first openly gay judge to serve on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. And Loretta Biggs will be the first black woman to serve as a district judge in North Carolina.

But the Obama gravy train may be rolling to a sudden halt. Republicans hold the majority in the upcoming 114th Congress, setting the stage for more confrontational relations during the president’s final two years in office.

The Republican Policy Committee, led by Sen. John Barrasso, of Wyoming, a group representing the GOP caucus, complained that “none of these nominees are essential to keep the government running” and that the time used in the confirmation proceedings would have been better spent debating “important tax and spending issues, including matters that actually have a deadline or could help to create American jobs.”

The RPC also objected to the lame duck session being used to consider judicial nominees, asserting it represented “the latest example of his disregard for the traditional practices of the Senate.”

“The last time the Senate confirmed judges who had been reported during a lame duck session was 2002,” the group said. “During the past two election cycles, when judges were reported out of committee during the lame duck session, the nominations were returned to the White House without confirmation during the session.”