As we prepare to begin a new year, it’s a fitting time to reflect on what 2013 meant for our federal courts. The Senate’s final votes of 2013 included several confirmations of judicial nominees who were not only highly qualified  but also brought  an unprecedented level of diversity to the federal bench. For example, over the last year alone President Obama has:

  • appointed a record number of African-American women to the federal bench;
  • quintupled the number of Asian-American women ever to serve on the bench;
  • appointed a dozen women who serve as the first woman judge in their district; and
  • appointed six women who serve as the first female circuit court judge in their state.

In 2013, the first women were confirmed to district courts in the Middle District of Louisiana, New Hampshire, Montana, and the Western District of New York; the first African-American woman was appointed to sit in Mississippi and the first Hispanic woman to sit on the Western District of Pennsylvania. In addition, the first female circuit court judge was confirmed in Iowa – Jane Kelly, who became only the second woman to sit on the Eighth Circuit in that court’s history. In addition, President Obama nominated Diane Humetawa to a district court seat in Arizona – who, if confirmed, would be the first Native American woman on the federal courts.

Moreover, just this month, Patricia A. Millett and Nina Pillard were confirmed to the D.C. Circuit, becoming the sixth and seventh women to ever serve on that 11-member court, and bringing the total of active female judges on that court to five for the first time. Their confirmations should be celebrated not only because they have increased that court’s diversity and seated superb judges, but also because they fill longstanding vacancies on what is widely considered this nation’s second-most important court. Indeed, with the expected confirmation of the third and final nominee, Judge Robert Wilkins, in January 2014, the D.C. Circuit will have a full complement of judges for the first time since 2005. Along with his Supreme Court nominees, filling these three vacancies (as well as a fourth filled by the confirmation of Sri Srinivasan in May 2013) will certainly be among President Obama’s signature accomplishments.

But all of these victories were hard-won, and achieved in the face of unrelenting obstruction. There was vehement opposition to filling any of the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, regardless of the sterling qualifications of the individuals nominated in June. All three were filibustered – after a fourth had been blocked earlier in the year. Only after Senate Majority Leader Reid changed the Senate filibuster rules for judicial and executive branch nominations were confirmation votes possible for these luminaries of the legal profession. More generally, nominations were routinely delayed at every level of the confirmation process throughout 2013. The last example of this obstruction was that nine nominees who were ready for a floor vote were prevented from receiving an up-or-down vote before the Senate adjourned for the year.

Looking forward to 2014, however, there is reason for optimism. The change to the Senate’s filibuster rules has the potential to finally move nominations forward to fill the excessively high number of vacancies in courts across the country. As more nominees move through the process, moreover, individuals who were reluctant to be considered could become part of the pool of possible nominees.

But to fully realize this potential, we must be vigilant in opposing any other obstructionist tactics that emerge. Senator Patrick Leahy, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, has flagged the “blue slip” rule, under which some Senators have delayed nominations from even happening, or prevented nominees from their states from moving forward, as one area for potential abuse. Members of the minority have also blocked judiciary committee hearings and meetings where votes on nominations were to have occurred, and required lengthy debates, using up precious Senate floor time, before allowing votes on nominees who had clear majority support towards the end of the Senate session. 

So as we celebrate the progress that was made in 2013, it is important to remember that progress is possible but also that there is still a long way to go before our courts are operating at full capacity and fully reflect the diverse face of our nation – and we need to band together to keep up the fight until we get there.

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