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Congressional Judicial Backlog Creates Problem for D.C. Court

Johnson, left, and Carper, right, head the committee with jurisdiction over D.C. judges. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The congressional backlog of judicial vacancies now extends all the way to District of Columbia local court, the only municipality where Congress has a say in its nominees.  

To address at least two of the vacancies, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee will consider Thursday the nominations of Robert A. Salerno and Darlene M. Soltys to be associate judges of the D.C. Superior Court. The hearing comes nearly a month after the D.C. courts' top judges called on Senate leaders to fill the vacancies. Due to the District's unique political status, judges for the D.C. Superior Court, which handles local civil and criminal matters, are nominated by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate. On Nov. 9, leaders of the superior and appeals courts wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., begging the chamber to take action on the nominees before adjourning for the year.  

"[We] want to share with you the adverse impact that judicial vacancies are having on the Court and residents of the District of Columbia," Chief Judge Eric T. Washington of the D.C. Court of Appeals and Judge Frederick Weisberg, on behalf of Superior Court Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield, said in the letter obtained by Roll Call.  

The judges described six vacancies (soon to be seven, after a December retirement) on the local court, which handles more than 100,000 cases per year. The Court of Appeals also had one vacancy. These openings, they wrote, were overloading case loads for the remaining judges and slowing appeal time.  

The judges pointed to two Superior Court nominees, Judge William Nooter and Steven Wellner, whom the Senate panel approved in June. Neither has been confirmed by the full Senate. Ten days after the letter, on Nov. 19, the Senate confirmed both Nooter and Wellner by voice vote.  

President Barack Obama nominated two more candidates to the D.C. Superior Court on Monday. But it is not clear whether the pending local nominees will receive swift confirmations. A spokesman for McConnell did not respond to a request for comment on a potential timeline for the remaining judges.  

A spokesman for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said the committee acts as expeditiously as it can with the nominees. "Those nominees have provided all the materials the committee requested, and they’ve completed the vetting and investigation process. As soon as those things happen and our schedule allows, we schedule a hearing," the spokesman said.  

Asked for a reaction to the judges' letter in November, a Reid aide pointed to the Nevada Democrat's numerous statements chiding the broader judicial backlog in the Senate. But the D.C. backlog was also a problem during Reid's tenure as majority leader. In September 2014, Satterfield wrote to Reid urging him to bring Wellner and Nooter's confirmations before the full Senate.  

12.2.15_Vacancy_RC The aide also pointed to court statistics to argue that the judicial vacancy problem has worsened under GOP leadership. Since, January, the number of "judicial emergencies" in the federal courts has risen from 12 to 30 . According to the administrative office for the U.S. Courts, a judicial emergency refers to a vacancy that drags on for more than 18 months, or a vacancy in courts with heavy caseloads.  

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who said the D.C. judicial vacancies were "outrageous" at an Oct. 7 Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs meeting, also pointed to holds on other nominations in the Senate.  

"It is a wide variety of important positions that are being held for no reason other than partisan politics,” she said.  

Committee ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., pointed out that the two nominees who were confirmed in November were both "non-controversial."  

"Today’s confirmation of both William Nooter and Steven Wellner to serve on the D.C. Superior Court is welcome news, albeit long-overdue," Carper said in a statement after their confirmations. "Given the extraordinary amount of time it took these two, non-controversial and bipartisan nominees to get confirmed, I urge my colleagues to act in a more timely manner on the additional D.C. Superior Court and Court of Appeals nominees expected in the coming months.”  

Related: Judicial Nomination Logjam Causes Dilemma for D.C. See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.