A comment made by Senator Mitch McConnell is a reminder of how some lawmakers plainly do not understand the role of the judiciary.
Following last week's Senate "deal" over judicial nominees -- "well, that's a step in the right direction" anyway, Peter O'Toole said in Lawrence of Arabia -- I want to come back briefly to one point which is under-analyzed in the debate over the costs of political obstructionism in the face of "judicial emergencies" all over America. It is the concept that federal judges are themselves a vital form of "capital investment" in the districts and circuits in which preside; more important to their communities -- and almost always more of a bargain -- than any pet project a politician is likely to scoop out of the pork barrel.
It was an epic comment made last Tuesday by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), before the deal was struck, that reminded me of how little respect some lawmakers must feel for judicial nominees, how little understanding they must have of what federal judges do, and how little senators must care about who suffers when worthy nominees are blocked from adjudicating cases as quickly as practical.
"This is a needless exercise and a waste of the Senate's time because I assume these 17 people already have a job," McConnell said of the 17 judicial nominees in play at the time on the floor of the Senate. "What we're worried about is all the people who don't currently have a job who might in some way benefit from a jobs package that we are by and large in agreement on," Sen. McConnell added.
The senator evidently was making a play on words about a jobs bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) had threatened to stall if Senate Republicans didn't stop blocking floor votes on the judicial nominees, 14 of whom were either unanimously endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee or had only one Republican Committee member vote against them.
Sen. McConnell is right to worry about jobs. But last week's fight over judicial nominees wasn't a fight over the 17 nominees themselves -- it was a fight for the rights and remedies of tens of millions of potential litigants residing in the judicial districts those nominees would serve. It was a fight with real meaning to people all over the country who have grievances with one another that must be resolved in federal court. What Senate obstructionists (of both parties) ignore in their preening speeches about "job creation" is that federal judges are perennial job creators -- to the extent they bring certainty and finality to legal disputes.
It's not complicated. When a federal judgeship goes vacant because of Senate intransigence, where judicial nominees with bipartisan approval are held up for no good reason, it's not typically the criminal cases which get unreasonably delayed. Criminal defendants have a speedy trial right under the Sixth Amendment. There is no such right for civil litigants. This means those litigants have to wait, often for years, for a trial judge to make available a time for the disposition of a dispute. The problem only gets worse, like it is now, when district courts are understaffed and judges are forced to handle more than their expected case load.
And who are civil litigants in our nation's federal courts? They are corporations and small business owners, investors and merchants, employees and employers, people just like you and me. Well, maybe not you and me since I didn't file a lawsuit this past year and you probably didn't either. But a lot of other people sure did. In 2010, according to federal court records, no fewer than 282,896 federal lawsuits were filed in America. In 2011, 289,252 lawsuits were filed, a 2.2 percent increase from the year before. The latest statistics reveal that there are currently 270,839 pending civil cases in our federal courts.