Federal Courts and Nominations

The promise and progress of the U.S. Constitution

Everyone knows July 4 marks the day the Founding Fathers adopted the Declaration of Independence, inaugurating the United States as a sovereign nation. Far fewer people know Sept. 17 as the day our founders signed the Constitution, establishing the most durable form of democratic government history has ever seen. Officially, the week after that date is celebrated as “Constitution Week.”

Let’s remember that the Constitution was written by revolutionaries who shared an unprecedented love of liberty, justice and concern for the welfare of their fellow citizens. Let’s also remember that the story of our Constitution didn’t end with its signing. Those revolutionaries knew the future would test their work, so they included a means for future revisions. The idea, after all, was to build “a more perfect union.”

And build “a more perfect union” we did. Successive generations amended the Constitution, though perhaps none more inspirationally than that of the Reconstruction period. In the four years between 1865 and 1869, the boundaries of liberty, U.S. citizenship, equal protection under the law and voting rights expanded exponentially with the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

This election year has made it painfully clear that Americans must continue to carefully guard the constitutional guarantees of liberty, justice and equality for all people regardless of color, creed, class or gender. Fundamental American values hang in the balance.

The promise of justice, for example, is threatened by the unprecedented breach by Senate Republicans of their constitutional responsibilities regarding judicial nominations. Since Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015, they have confirmed just 22 judicial nominees — a record low since the 1950s when the judiciary was half its current size.

That leaves 90 vacancies on federal courts around the nation, 35 representing judicial emergencies, meaning they are vastly overburdened. These vacancies don’t just affect the nominees. They affect everyone. The speedy trial rights of criminal defendants are threatened. Civil cases are delayed. And citizens are denied timely justice on a range of issues including civil rights, clean air and water, corporate responsibility and reproductive rights.

Perhaps the most well-known of those vacant seats is the one on the Supreme Court, rendering the Court unable to reach decisions in tied cases. The President nominated Chief Judge Merrick Garland to the position on March 16, one month after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. But it took Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell mere hours after Scalia’s death was announced to declare that the Senate would not hold hearings on, much less confirm, the President’s nominee.

“The next justice could fundamentally alter the direction of the Supreme Court and have a profound impact on our country,” McConnell said, “so of course the American people should have a say in the court’s direction.”

But the American people did have a say in the matter, by electing President Barack Obama not once but twice; he has fulfilled his constitutional duty by nominating an extraordinarily qualified and respected jurist to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat. Yet, McConnell was content to twist the Constitution to serve his partisan political ends: the hope that a Republican would be elected the next President and nominate a conservative to preserve the court’s right-leaning slant. This blockade of the Supreme Court is unprecedented and irresponsible, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte should refuse to go along with Senate Republican leadership’s willingness to risk the nation’s judicial system and Americans’ ability to vindicate their rights.

As we celebrate Constitution Week this year, let’s remind ourselves and our public officials of the staggering achievement of that extraordinary founding document signed 229 years ago, and the later generations of Americans who worked to make it even more faithful to our founding values. Remembering our Constitution’s progress and promise, and the system of justice we need to make it a reality, has never been more important.

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