Judicial Nomination Logjam Causes Dilemma for D.C.

Posted September 18, 2014 at 5:19pm

With the flow of judicial nominations slowing to a trickle this summer, District of Columbia officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the effect on the local bench.  

Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield last week wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid describing the “adverse impact” of the backlog. Facing three judicial vacancies on the D.C. Superior Court, and a fourth coming in November, Satterfield requested votes on pending nominations before Congress adjourns.  

The Nevada Democrat’s office has not responded formally to the Sept. 10 letter, according to Leah H. Gurowitz, director of governmental affairs and public relations for the court. Despite the correspondence, first reported by Legal Times , the chamber appears poised to adjourn without considering the nominations. Reid’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the situation. Under the District’s unique status, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, not the Judiciary Committee, has to conduct confirmation hearings on federal judges nominated by the president to be confirmed by the Senate, who have exclusively local purview for the courts of D.C.  

Two of the local nominees — Steven M. Wellner and William W. Nooter — sailed through the committee earlier this year, while Sherry Moore Trafford’s nomination has not been voted on since her appearance before a subcommittee on March 27.  

A committee aide told CQ Roll Call that Trafford is still under consideration and Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., hopes to move forward on her nomination after Congress returns.  

The busy, urban court has 62 judges when fully staffed. They handle more than 100,000 cases per year.  

Satterfield said the “most pressing” impact of the current vacancies is hitting Family Court, which handles abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, child support, and more. Currently, four judges are handling five calendars of domestic relations and neglect cases. Nearly 2,500 new case filings in the first eight months of the year amount to a caseload of 623 per judge, without taking into account motions filed or pending cases.  

“Family Court judges make life and death decisions about neglected and abused children in the District so it is imperative that the court has a full complement of judges to handle these cases,” Satterfield wrote.  

Carper heard directly about the burden of local judicial vacancies on Monday, during a hearing focused on D.C. statehood . In the final minutes of the hearing, Carper asked for more details as he explored means short of granting statehood that Congress could do to help.  

Norton, left, reluctant to criticize Reid, right, for stalling on local judicial nominations. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Norton, left, is reluctant to criticize Reid, right, over the backlog. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“It’s something frankly, your committee has done a decent job of moving those along,” testified D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss, “but there are times when vacancies sit on our court because they’re understandably not a priority and the administration of justice in District of Columbia is handicapped because frankly, your committee has more important things that it should be doing rather than confirming local judges that wouldn’t be involved with the federal government in any other state.”  

When asked about the stall on local judicial nominees, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told CQ Roll Call that the court staff had failed to inform her of the situation. Had her office known, she said, “I think we could have gotten that fixed.”  

Norton has been effusive in her praise of Carper for holding the statehood hearing, and did not criticize the functions of the Senate or the committee.  

“One reason it might have been held up is nobody informed the member who represents the District that they were coming,” she said, adding, “we think this can be easily fixed.”  

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