Reaping the Fruits of Judicial Obstruction

Yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (covering Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) issued a complicated (216-page) and fractured (5-4, with a plethora of concurrences and dissents) decision that turned on one judge joining four colleagues on one issue and four other colleagues on another. Essentially, the Al-Marri case says that the president has the power to order the indefinite military detentions of civilians captured in the U.S., but that these “enemy combatants” must be given more of an opportunity to challenge their detention in federal court than has been given.

This is a big mess of a decision – right or wrong, no clear guidelines emerge – the substance of which I won’t get into and, in any event, it’s on the fast track to the Supreme Court. What I do want to comment on, however, is the larger significance of the 5-4 splits in this en banc (meaning all the court’s judges review the earlier decision of a three-judge panel) case.

Regardless of the merits of this case – with dueling 5-4 votes on the two main issues it’s obviously a close (and unprecedented) call – this case highlights yet again the disastrous consequences of our broken judicial confirmation process. The court that decided this important case has 15 authorized judgeships, yet only nine judges participated. One judge recused himself for an unspecified reason, one was confirmed too recently, and four crucial slots are vacant. While both parties have done their fair share to poison the confirmation well, Democrats are clearly the ones to blame for the current impasse over judges. President Bush – who in one of his first acts appointed a previously lapsed Clinton nominee, Roger Gregory, to this same court – has named nominees for all four vacancies, but the Senate has refused to act on them. The longest-suffering, District Judge Robert Conrad of North Carolina, will tomorrow have been awaiting an entire year and has not even gotten a Judiciary Committee hearing.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has been similarly hamstrung, its ten judges increasingly splitting 5-5 on the important issues of the day while Peter Keisler, the person nominated to the seat John Roberts vacated when he became Chief Justice has been awaiting an up-or-down vote for over two years. (Keisler is the most qualified lower-court nominee since Miguel Estrada, who withdrew his name from consideration after being filibustered ostensibly because Democrats were wary of confirming a conservative Hispanic who would have instantly become a contender for the next Supreme Court vacancy. Keisler is also on record as having opposed the controversial ideological vetting of new Justice Department hires.)

By their (in)action, first as minority filibusterers and now as majority obstructers, Senate Democrats hamper the judicial process and invite messy and inconclusive decisions like Al-Marri.