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Editorial: Extreme partisanship blocks judges, cripples federal courts

Think it’s bad that we have an empty seat on the U.S. Supreme Court?

Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Senate Republicans have been so successful in their strategy of obstructing any nominees by President Barack Obama that there are now 89 vacancies in the federal courts system.

Waiting to fill those spots are 58 nominees, the limbo for some going back almost a year and a half. That includes South Florida attorney Mary Barzee Flores, whose nomination 16 months ago has been blocked by her own senator, Marco Rubio. The seat she would fill on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida? It’s been empty two years.

The foot-dragging of the Senate is at new levels, and it is having a dispiriting impact on the judiciary. More accused criminals are having their charges dismissed or taking pleas because the pressure is on in the courthouses to slash criminal dockets.

More important, the federal courts are where citizens go to protect important constitutional rights on voting access, the environment and discrimination. It’s where consumers and workers go to hold corporations accountable. With those courts crippled, essential liberties may be eroded.

There is no mystery why this is occurring. Just hours after conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died on Feb. 13, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president”— even though the U.S. Constitution clearly defines the Senate’s duty to “advise and consent” when presidents nominate a justice.

Sure enough, Obama’s pick, Judge Merrick Garland, has been all but forgotten, no confirmation hearing in sight, while the Supreme Court makes do with a shorthanded bench, divided 4-4 between liberals and conservatives. Last month, the court punted on an important case that challenged Obamacare contraception coverage on religious grounds, sending it back to a lower court with the lame request that everybody try to work things out. Thus is the highest court in the land diminished.

Stalling and voting no have been the consistent approach of congressional Republicans all through the Obama administration. In Obama’s first term, he saw fewer total circuit court and district court nominees confirmed than in the first term of the past three presidents: just 173, compared with 205 for George W. Bush, 200 for Bill Clinton and 192 for George H.W. Bush.

Most of Obama’s picks had to wait 200 days or more from nomination to confirmation; back in the administration of Ronald Reagan, 82 percent of judgeships were confirmed inside 100 days — with a Democratic Senate.

To be sure, both Democrats and Republicans have been escalating this kind of fighting over the past 30 years. But it really spiked after Obama took office and McConnell vowed that his “No. 1 priority” was to engineer Obama’s failure. This isn’t patriotism. It’s the very definition of putting party above country.

It all adds immeasurably to the cynicism that people feel about government. Our system is supposed to be one of checks and balances, not a system of perpetual stalemate.

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