Opinion Columns & Blogs

Improve judicial confirmation process

The news release the other day from Texas Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn was all high fives and gushing.

"I am pleased the Senate recognized Judge Diana Saldana's outstanding qualifications and has confirmed her," Hutchison was quoted as saying after the federal magistrate won 94-0 approval for a U.S. District Court judgeship in Laredo.

"Her journey from summers spent working as a migrant farmer beginning when she was 10 years old, to becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree, and now being nominated by the president to serve as a federal judge truly exemplifies the American dream," was part of Cornyn's statement.

"I'm glad that we can come together in the spirit of bipartisanship and help work the heavy caseload we have on the border," was the contribution from Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents Laredo.

Missing was any mention that Saldana had to wait more than half a year for the Senate to confirm her completely noncontroversial nomination.

President Obama nominated her in July. In September, the Senate Judiciary Committee held an uneventful hearing. The committee approved Saldana in December. The Senate then let her nomination die when Congress adjourned for 2010.

It appears she got caught in the mindless, shameless, pointless scuffling by which year after year, administration after administration, senators not of the president's political party batter innocent judges-in-waiting while blocking a handful of nominees whom one side or the other just doesn't want on the bench.

Last year, it was Republicans obstructing four highly qualified nominees they considered too liberal — and holding up numerous other fine candidates nobody really objected to. That intransigence, coupled with the hiatus around the November elections, resulted in the Senate not approving any judicial nominees between Aug. 5 and Dec. 10.

The president wrote to Senate leaders from both parties in September complaining that the slow pace of confirmations hurt the dispensing of justice by leaving overburdened federal courts unable to serve the public as efficiently as they should.

"If there is a genuine concern about the qualifications of judicial nominees, that is a debate I welcome," Obama wrote. "But the consistent refusal to move promptly to have that debate, or to confirm even those nominees with broad, bipartisan support, does a disservice to the greatest traditions of this body and the American people it serves."

Individuals who agree to undergo the grinding scrutiny that the judicial selection process has become are entitled to the courtesy of a vote, regardless of whether senators like the nominees' record. That's as true when Democrats are the obstructionists as when Republicans are the culprits.

It apparently took some quiet deal-making to get 19 Obama judges confirmed in late December — most of them without dissent — but not Saldana or Marina Garcia Marmolejo, whom Obama nominated for a District Court in Galveston last summer.

On Jan. 5, the president renominated them along with 40 other judicial picks who'd never received a vote. And last week the Senate confirmed three: Saldana, Paul Holmes of Arkansas and Marco Hernandez of Oregon.

Saldana is a 39-year-old from Carrizo Springs, a University of Texas alum who worked in the U.S. Agriculture and Justice departments, then for a Houston law firm, before becoming a federal prosecutor and heading task forces going after human trafficking and gangs. Right after law school, she clerked for U.S. District Judge George Kazen, whom she's succeeding.

There's no excuse — beyond petty partisan game-playing — why her confirmation took so long.

When Cornyn joined the Senate in 2003, he called for a "fresh start" on judicial nominations to make sure that political fights didn't obliterate a fair process for nominees.

He complained when Democrats, then in the minority, persistently impeded Texan Priscilla Owen's confirmation to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He has repeatedly said nominees are entitled to a vote. And in 2009, when many Republicans were blocking an Obama appellate court nominee, Cornyn agreed to give him a floor vote, then voted against confirmation.

Instead of just applauding confirmations, Cornyn, a Republican leadership member who sits on the Judiciary Committee, should still be advocating improvements to the process so even his own party doesn't get to chew up qualified nominees in a politically mangled confirmation process.