Federal Courts and Nominations

Texas judge gets past U.S. Senate logjam

By Kevin Diaz


WASHINGTON – After months of delay, a unanimous U.S. Senate on Monday confirmed Alfred Bennett to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, cracking open slightly a national logjam of judicial nominations and a backlog of cases.


Bennett’s 95-0 vote, though welcomed by legal reformers, still leaves in limbo at least two other pending confirmation votes for Texas judges – a vestige of congressional gridlock despite assurances by Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and other GOP leaders who had vowed to push for swift confirmation.


No final votes have been scheduled for Texas judges George Hanks Jr. and Jose Olvera Jr., although Senate aides said they could be confirmed in the coming weeks. Texas’ 11 federal judicial vacancies are the most of any state.


Bennett’s is the first judicial nomination to clear the Senate since Republicans took over in January. The delays mounted under Democratic control as well, even after Senate rules were changed to ease confirmation of presidential nominations to the lower courts and executive offices.


The growing national backlog has provoked finger-pointing on both sides, with plenty of blame to go around as the White House makes nominations based the recommendations of the U.S. senators from the states where the vacancies occur.


Democrats argue that Texas had a full complement of federal district court judges when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, a sign of their cooperation with the Bush administration. Since then, however, the White House has sought to give Texas Democrats in the U.S. House delegation a voice in recommending federal judges, a role that has traditionally been reserved for senators.


None of the Texas judges are considered controversial. Originally nominated in September, they represent a diverse new generation of judges: Bennett and Hanks are black; Olvera is Latino.


During confirmation hearings in February all three won praise from Cornyn and fellow Republican Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas. At the time, Cornyn said he expected the three Texas judges to be confirmed expeditiously.


But the decision by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to hold back Senate votes on Olvera and Hanks has mystified court watchers.


“Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, need to oil the judicial confirmation machinery they’ve allowed to rust over since they’ve taken control, and get the gears of justice moving efficiently again,” said Judith Schaeffer, vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center.


Of the Lone Star state’s 11 federal judicial vacancies, nine are in district courts and two on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews cases from Texas.


That is one-fifth of 55 total current vacancies nationwide, according to Glenn Sugameli, who tracks judicial appointments for Judging the Environment, a Defenders of Wildlife project. Meanwhile, the nation faces a record backlog of more than 330,000 civil cases.


Those pressing to speed the confirmation of federal judges represent an array of judicial, corporate, and special interest groups, including the Texas General Counsel Coalition.


“This slow-walk approach to confirming nominees is delaying justice for millions of Americans, and in Texas in particular,” said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, a coalition of social justice groups.


Counting Hanks and Olvera, there are four judicial nominees who are awaiting votes on the Senate floor, each nominated more than 200 days ago. Another 13 are still being vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee.


Bennett, for his part, will replace U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt, who went on senior (semi-retired) status in March, 2013, more than two years ago.


Bennett has served as the presiding judge for the 61st Civil District Court of Texas. Hanks serves as a U.S. magistrate judge in the Southern District, and Olvera has been the presiding judge of the 5th Administrative Judicial Region.

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