WASHINGTON — Without naming names or casting blame, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. called on Republicans and Democrats Friday to put aside their differences and move more quickly to approve qualified nominees to be federal judges.
Currently, about 110 judgeships — about one in eight in the federal judiciary — are vacant, and the Senate approved only 60 of President Barack Obama's court nominees in the past two years. That was the lowest total for a new president in four decades.
In Roberts' year-end report on the federal courts, he said this "persistent problem has developed ... over many years," and both parties have played a role.
"Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes," he said. "This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts."
Although the Senate confirmed 19 judicial nominees in December's lame-duck session, it let another 19 nominations die, even though most of them had been approved overwhelmingly by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
More than a decade ago, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist drew wide attention when he faulted Senate Republicans for blocking President Bill Clinton's court nominees. Roberts, however, made no mention of Obama and did not blame Republicans for the recent delays.
"The judiciary relies on the president's nominations and the Senate's confirmation process to fill judicial vacancies; we do not comment on the merits of individual nominees. That is as it should be," Roberts wrote. "There remains, however, an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem."
Roberts himself has some familiarity with partisan stalling over court nominees. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush nominated him to be a judge on the U.S. court of appeals in Washington, but his nomination went nowhere and died when Clinton took office.
In 2001, President George W. Bush again nominated Roberts to the U.S. court of appeals, and although he faced little opposition, he was not confirmed until 2003. Two years later, Bush chose him for the Supreme Court.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, issued a statement taking note of Roberts' comments, but pointedly blamed the GOP for the high vacancy rate on the federal bench.
"Regrettably, in this Congress, Republicans compounded the vacancy crisis by turning away from the Senate's long-held tradition of promptly considering non-controversial nominees, even those supported by Republican home-state senators," he said. "Democrats stand ready to address the needs of the federal judiciary. I hope the Republicans will join us."
For their part, Senate Republicans noted that Obama's Justice Department was slow in making nominations to the federal bench. Even if all of Obama's nominees had been approved, he would still have had fewer confirmed judges in his first two years than Clinton or Bush.
Obama did succeed in adding two justices to the Supreme Court: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Roberts devoted most of his report to the need to hold down spending because of the bad economy and the growing federal deficit. Unlike in years past, he did not press Congress to raise salaries for federal judges.
"The Supreme Court itself is doing its part," he said. "The court expects to voluntarily reduce its fiscal year 2012 appropriations request to less than its fiscal year 2011 request."
(Savage works in the Washington Bureau of the Tribune Company.)