When we think of the federal courts, we naturally focus on the Supreme Court of the United States, which has shaped American life through momentous decisions. Supreme Court rulings have struck down segregated school systems, upheld the right to an abortion, allowed unrestricted political spending by corporations and legalized same-sex marriage.

Yet the number of cases considered by the Supreme Court is a tiny fraction of the total cases decided in the lower courts, cases that also shape our daily lives. Just last week the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to move forward with its Clean Power Plan aimed at drastically reducing pollution from power plants.

The federal courts are a critical component of a functioning government. That’s why it’s distressing that as of today there are 71 vacant judgeships across the country, and that 31 of those vacancies have resulted in caseloads for other judges so high as to constitute an emergency.

Given that access to justice is a fundamental American value, you might expect the U.S. Senate to act swiftly to fill those positions, ensuring that their constituents can have their day in court. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Currently, 12 nominees to the federal courts await an up-or-down vote from the full Senate after having been reviewed and recommended for confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee. One nominee, Jeanne Davidson, was recommended by the committee to their peers on Feb. 5, 2015, nearly one full year ago. Why hasn’t the Senate decided whether to confirm this candidate in a year?

Another 20 nominees have yet to be reported out by the committee, and only five of those well-qualified candidates have had a hearing.

Mary Flores was nominated to the Southern District Court of Florida nearly one year ago; why hasn’t the Senate Judiciary Committee found the time to hold a hearing on her suitability to serve in this important role? The seat she would fill has sat vacant for over 600 days, leading to a judicial emergency.

If this were a game, we’d say one side is running out the clock.

Could it be that with the presidential election just around the corner, the leaders in the U.S. Senate have opted to drag their feet in the hopes that a member of their party will have the opportunity to fill as many lifetime appointments to the federal bench as possible? After all, each federal judge will shape critical decisions affecting our civil liberties, privacy, health and safety, and right to vote over a period of decades.

Stalling might be a good political tactic, but it doesn’t serve justice. Americans want our government to function, we want to know that everyone in this country has a fair chance to be heard, and we want our elected officials to do the job they sought.

One important strategy to ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard is to create courts that are made up of judges with a wide range of personal and professional experiences. President Obama has done more than any of his predecessors to diversify the bench; 42 percent of his nominees have been women, 36 percent have been non-white and 14 of the judges he named are gay or lesbian.

That’s a great step forward in building a federal court system that looks like the rest of America, one where the federal judges who rule on issues that affect every aspect of our lives are more likely to understand the experiences of the people who come before them.

Ensuring that the federal courts function and that they reflect our country should not stop just because we’ve entered a presidential election year. They are too important for that.

What can those of us who do not serve in the U.S. Senate do? We can tell our elected representatives, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, that this issue matters.

We can ask them to demand that the leaders of the Senate hold an up-or-down vote on the 12 nominees who are waiting for one. We can ask them to insist that those same leaders direct the Senate Judiciary Committee to meet, hold hearings on the nominees before them and vote one way or the other on whether they should be confirmed.

Anyone interested in learning more about the importance of the federal courts is welcome to attend a public forum beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Luther Bonney Hall, 85 Bedford St., Portland.

— Special to the Press Herald


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