Trump and McConnell Too Slow to Fill the Courts: Grassley

Delays on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are frustrating Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley ’s ambitious plans to fill the federal courts with conservative judges.

After a record number of federal appellate judges were confirmed in President Donald Trump ‘s first year in office,the pace of formal transmissions from the White House slowed for the first few months of the year, Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a recent interview.

Meanwhile, 35 committee-approved nominees are still waiting for Senate floor votes.

“Going forward I don’t think you’re going to find my committee being a bottleneck,” Grassley said. “I think you’re going to find the floor being a bottleneck.”

Grassley said the backlog keeps growing because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.) has been prioritizing executive branch nominees and legislation.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) arrives for a hearing in December 2015.
Photographer: Brenda Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The backlog is to be cut a bit beginning with a procedural vote later today on the first of six appellate court nominees scheduled for floor action this week.

There are 148 vacancies in the federal judiciary and nominees for 68 of those slots, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Grassley said his party’s leaders have been trying to reassure him about scheduling votes despite the election-shortened calendar, telling him, “Don’t worry, you’re going to get them through,” Grassley said. “But I never hear how they’re going to do it.”

In a May 3 radio interview, McConnell told interviewer Hugh Hewitt that his goal is “to confirm all the circuit and district court judges that come out of committee this calendar year. All of them.”

“I’m processing them as quickly as they come out of the Judiciary Committee, and the administration’s sending them up rapidly,” he said.

When asked about Grassley’s remarks, McConnell spokesman David Popp said the Hewitt interview reflects the leader’s intentions.

Setting Records

In his first year, Trump had more appellate judges confirmed than all other modern presidents. Combined with action over the past few months, the Senate has confirmed 33 of his judicial nominees, one for the U.S. Supreme Court, 15 circuit court judges, and 17 district court judges.

Grassley bent the long-standing “blue slip” rule to advance some nominees without endorsement by their home state senators.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) has strenuously objected, and issued a statement opposing Grassley’s planned May 9 hearing on Ryan Bounds to join the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because the nominee lacks the backing of his homestate senators.

The Congressional Research Service “could not find a single instance where a nominee without at least one blue slip had a hearing or was confirmed by the Senate,” she wrote.

“You’ve seen Grassley willing to do, at this point, whatever it takes to get some of their controversial nominees through, despite the opposition of the Democratic senators,” Richard Vining of the University of Georgia’s School of Public Affairs said in a telephone interview.

He noted that Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), helped derail the nomination of Matthew Peterson to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and withheld a positive blue slip for Kyle Duncan to serve on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Simple Math

According to McConnell’s official schedule, nearly 100 session days remain this year, though that estimate’s probably on the high side, since senators say they expect the practice of scheduling no Friday votes to continue.

Grassley said he doesn’t expect the Senate to work much past the first week of October, so at the most he may be able to add about 50 judges to the 35 now awaiting confirmation.

Grassley’s committee is scheduled to vote May 10 on the 9th Circuit nomination of Mark Bennett, who has the support of his home state senators, Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). Three district court judges also are on the agenda that day.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Theresa Barry at tbarry@bgov.com