Earlier this week, the United States Senate voted to confirm Paul Watford to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit is the nation’s largest circuit court with a jurisdiction that covers 62 million residents of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii. Prior to Watford’s confirmation, only one of the twenty-nine seats on the Ninth Circuit was held by an African-American judge, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson, who was appointed by President Clinton. Only two other African Americans have served on the Ninth Circuit, President Carter appointed Jerome Farris and Cecil Poole, and they served until 1995 and 1996, respectively. Judge Jacqueline Nguyen was also confirmed this month for a seat on the Ninth Circuit. She will be the first Vietnamese American and first Asian-Pacific woman to serve on a federal appeals court. Judge Nguyen will fill a new seat on Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that has been vacant since it was authorized in January 2009.
While it is encouraging to see greater diversity on the Ninth Circuit, some believe that there is a real judicial vacancy crisis in the federal courts, with more than 75 judgeships currently vacant. During his presidential campaign, President Obama expressed his desire to diversify the federal judiciary. Some argue that this crisis is in large part the result of the unprecedented obstruction President Obama's nominees have faced. Presidents Clinton and Bush had just over 200 lower court judges confirmed during their first terms, but after three and a half years of the Obama presidency, the Senate has confirmed only 145 of his judicial nominees. On May 7th, members of the Obama administration met with community leaders, legal experts and representatives of numerous national organizations, including the Hispanic National Bar Association and the National Bar Association. The national groups issued a joint statement which read, in part: “This vacancy crisis, which has left 250 million Americans living in communities with unstaffed federal courtrooms, must end, and the confirmation process must not be allowed to be slowed even further by election-year politics. We believe that every nominee submitted by the President this year deserves a yes-or-no vote confirmation vote. Together, we will continue to fight for a fair judiciary and stand with the American people to ensure they have timely access to qualified judges to hear their disputes and have their day in court.”
Is there a judicial vacancy crisis in the federal courts? If so, what impact is it having on President’s Obama’s desire to diversify the federal judiciary?