Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Friday that Republicans are still blocking votes on 19 judicial nominations as vacancies in some of the districts hit emergency levels.
There are 83 federal judicial vacancies nationwide and 19 nominations still pending before the Senate. Leahy said that if the Senate votes on these 19 nominations, “we can fill almost one-quarter of our nation’s judicial vacancies, and almost one-third of all judicial emergency vacancies.”
Leahy called on Republicans to follow the precedent of previous lameduck sessions after presidential elections, and confirm every judicial nominee reported by the Judiciary Committee. He discussed the pending nomination of Patty Shwartz to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been ready for a vote since March 8.
“Judge Shwartz received a unanimous well-qualified rating from the nonpartisan ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, its highest possible rating, and it is well past time for the Senate to vote on her nomination,” he said in his statement.
Shwartz’s nomination hit snags early on as Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) questioned some of her responses about legal issues, calling them ambiguous. Her nomination also languished because of a reported dust up with her home-state senator, Robert Menendez, a Democrat.
“There were more than 80 vacancies when the year began,” he said. “In stark contrast, there were only 29 vacancies at this point in President George W. Bush’s first term,” Leahy said.
There were more than 80 vacancies in March when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed a petition for cloture on 17 of President Barack Obama’s federal judicial nominees.
“I implore Senators to put their partisanship aside and work with the President on behalf of the American people. That is what the American people voted for in the last election. Delaying confirmation votes on nominees for the sole purpose of delay is precisely what the American people repudiated when they cast their ballots. Further delays on the 19 nominees before us do not benefit the American people.”
Grassley, after Reid filed cloture to force a vote on a slate of nominees, said Democrats were simply using it as a ploy to “build rhetoric for the president.” He said Barack Obama has nominated many fewer nominees than the past two presidents in the same time frame.
An embattled Jim Letten defended his office on Thursday, saying an online commenting scandal that has toppled two of his long-serving prosecutors is not a distraction.
“Your United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana is strong. We are focused. We are fully engaged and moving forward, only forward without missing a step,” said Letten, the U.S. Attorney in New Orleans, ccording to a report by WWL-TV in Lousiana.
The scandal has put a spotlight on the U.S. Attorney’s office, with a federal judge offering some harsh words this week and continued questions about Letten’s future in the office. Former prosecutor Sal Perricone admitted earlier this year to being the person behind a prolific online author who posted hundreds of comments about defendants in federal cases, lawyers, judges and even his own boss, Letten. Last month, Letten’s No. 2, Jan Mann, also admitted to similar allegations and has been demoted. Perricone resigned in March.
Letten, who has been tight-lipped since the allegations against Mann surfaced, offered a strong defense of his office and its work on Thursday at a law enforcement luncheon in New Orleans.
“Know this, neither I, nor this U.S. Attorney’s Office will be distracted or deterred from fairly, aggressively, relentlessly investigating, pursuing and prosecuting those who violate our laws,” Letten said, according to the report.
He also addressed talk that the scandal may be a convenient way to bring his long tenure to a close. (George W. Bush-appointee Letten is the longest serving U.S. Attorney currently in office, having started in April 2001. Louisiana’s Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu supported Letten’s reappointment in 2009 but may now be eager to recommend a Democrat for the plum position.)
“My future is not what’s important. What I’ve got to remember, we’ve all got to remember is the future of the people we serve, the future of the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” he said.
Jim Bernazzani, former FBI Special Agent in Charge in New Orleans, told WWL-TV that Letten has been “victimized” in the episode. “He’s one of the brightest lights in this city,” he said.
Looking forward, Letten said he is making sure his prosecutors do not take their “eye off the ball.”
“Yeah, we have challenges,” he said. “We have significant challenges that we are working through in that arena right now.”