News Law and Policy

Senate Confirms Robert Wilkins Nomination, Filling Final Vacancy on D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

Jessica Mason Pieklo

With the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals fight over for now, focus shifts to other key vacancies.

The Senate voted 55 to 43 along party lines Monday to confirm Judge Robert Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Wilkins was one of three nominees blocked for months by Senate Republicans and whose confirmation was possible only after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Democrats voted to change Senate rules to prevent the filibuster of most judicial nominees and agency appointments. Wilkins, who has been a trial judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia since 2010, joins fellow nominees Patricia Millett and Nina Pillard, who were confirmed late last year shortly after the rule change. Another nominee, Caitlin Halligan, withdrew her nomination after anti-choice activists and the National Rifle Association joined forces to block her nomination.

“Now that the D.C. Circuit’s seats are full, it can get on with its important work for the American people,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, in a statement. “And just as importantly, if the Senate can put petty partisan fights behind it, it can get on with doing the American people’s work as well, including filling the other long-vacant federal court seats across the country.”

Wilkins is the fourth of President Obama’s judicial nominees to be confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. His confirmation brings to a close, for now, the fight over the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and fills all of the judicial vacancies in a jurisdiction Republicans had focused on in efforts to retain influence and control in the direction of the federal judiciary. The court hears some of the most complicated regulatory challenges in the nation. Those decisions, like one Tuesday blocking the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules or an earlier one blocking enforcement of the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, have national implications.

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Wilkins’ confirmation shifts the balance of active judges on the nation’s second most important court from an even split of four Republican and four Democratic appointees to a 7-4 advantage for Democrats.

Commentary Law and Policy

Republicans Make History in Obstructing Merrick Garland for Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Merrick Garland is now officially the longest Supreme Court nominee to go without confirmation hearings or a vote in U.S. history.

Merrick Garland, President Obama’s selection to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, now has the dubious distinction of being the longest U.S. Supreme Court nominee ever to go without a vote to confirm or reject his appointment, thanks to Senate Republicans’ refusal to do their jobs.

I can’t say it any differently. This has been an utter, total failure by grown men, and a few women, in the Senate to do the kind of thing they’re supposed to in exchange for getting paid by the rest of us. And after nearly a decade of unprecedented—and I mean unprecedentedobstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees writ large, there’s no flowery language that can capture how our federal courts’ slow burn on the the Republicans’ watch has now caught full fire with the fight over Garland’s nomination.

Instead what we have are dry, hard facts. A century ago, Justice Louis Brandeis was forced to wait 125 days before his confirmation to become the first Jewish justice on the Court. Justice Scalia died on February 13 of this year. President Obama nominated Garland on March 16. Wednesday marked 126 days of zero Senate action on that nomination.

And since Congress is now on recess, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

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It’s not just that the Senate hasn’t held a vote. They have held no hearings. Several senators have refused to meet with Garland. They have taken. No. Action. Not a bit. And here’s the kicker: None of us should be surprised.

President Obama had no sooner walked off the Rose Garden lawn after announcing Garland’s nomination in March than Senate Republicans announced their plan to sit on it until after the presidential election. Eight months away. In November.

Senate Republicans’ objection isn’t to Garland himself. He’s a moderate who has generally received bipartisan praise and support throughout his career and should, on any other day, sail through the confirmation process. As compared with both of President Obama’s other appointments, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Garland is practically a gift to Senate Republicans in all his moderate-aging-white-guy-ness. I mean, who would have thought that of all the nominees Republicans were going to double-down their obstruction efforts on, it would be Justice Dad?

Instead, their objection is to the fact that the democratic process should guarantee they lose control of the Supreme Court. Unless, of course, they can stop that process.

Conservatives have spent decades investing in the federal courts as a partisan tool. They did so by building an infrastructure of sympathetic conservative federal judges through appointments when in executive power, and by blocking liberal attempts to do the same when in the political minority. It’s an investment that has largely paid off. Federal circuit appeals courts like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth issue reliably conservative opinions regularly, thanks to aggressive appointments by conservatives during the Reagan and Bush years.

Meanwhile, thanks to conservative obstruction under Democratic administrations—most egregiously under President Obama—71 district court seats currently sit vacant. Twenty-four of those seats are in jurisdictions considered by the courts themselves to be judicial emergencies: places where the caseload is so great or the seat has remained vacant for so long the court is at risk of no longer functioning.

It’s easy to see why conservatives would want to keep their grip on the federal judiciary given the kinds of issues before it: These are the courts that hear immigration and detention cases, challenges to abortion restrictions, employment discrimination cases, as well as challenges to voting rights restrictions. Just to name a few. But as long as there are no judges, the people being directly affected are left in limbo as their cases drag on and on and on.

Our federal courts of appeals are no better. Nine federal appellate seats sit vacant, five in jurisdictions deemed judicial emergencies.

These vacancies have nominees. Senate Republicans just refuse to confirm them.

And no, the other side doesn’t do this. Federal judgeships have always been political. But never have the Democrats used the judiciary as a blatantly partisan extension of their elected members.

The refusal to vote on Garland’s nomination is the most visible example of the conservatives’ drive to maintain control over the federal courts, but it’s hardly their most blatant display of sheer partisanship. I’m guessing that is yet to come when, should they lose the presidential election, Senate Republicans face the choice of quickly confirming Garland or continuing their stand-off indefinitely. And given what we’ve seen of the election cycle so far, do we really think Senate Republicans are going to suddenly grow up and do their jobs? I hate to say it, folks, but Merrick Garland isn’t getting confirmed anytime soon.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Legislator Confirms Vote on House Conscience Protections (Updated)

Christine Grimaldi

The Conscience Protection Act would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face supposed coercion to provide abortion care or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in abortion care. The Act allows providers to sue not only for threats, but also for perceived threats.

UPDATE: July 14, 10 a.m.: The House passed the Conscience Protection Act Wednesday night in a largely party line 245-182 vote. Prior to floor consideration, House Republicans stripped the text of an unrelated Senate-passed bill (S. 304) and replaced it with the Conscience Protection Act. They likely did so to skip the Senate committee referral process, House Democratic aides told Rewire, expediting consideration across the capitol and, in theory, ushering a final bill to the president’s desk. President Barack Obama, however, would veto the Conscience Protection Act, according to a statement of administration policy.

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote next Wednesday on legislation that would allow a broadened swath of health-care providers to sue if they’re supposedly coerced into providing abortion care, or if they face discrimination for refusing to provide such care, according to a prominent anti-choice lawmaker.

Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) told Rewire in a Friday morning interview that House leadership confirmed a vote on the Conscience Protection Act (H.R. 4828) for July 13, days before the chamber adjourns for the presidential nominating conventions and the August recess. Pitts said he expects the bill to be brought up as a standalone measure, rather than as an amendment to any of the spending bills that have seen Republican amendments attacking a range of reproductive health care and LGBTQ protections.

The office of U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) had no immediate comment.

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Pitts’ remarks came during and after he hosted a “Forum on Conscience Protections” in the House Energy and Commerce Committee room to garner support for the bill.

Energy and Commerce Democrats boycotted the forum, a House Democratic aide told Rewire in a subsequent interview.

Legislation Builds on Precedent

Conscience protections are nothing new, the aide said. The latest iteration is a successor to the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (S. 1919/H.R. 940), which remains pending in the House and U.S. Senate. There’s also the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (S. 50) and similarly named bills in both chambers. The fiscal year 2017 Labor, Health, and Human Services funding bill, which guts Title X and Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants, includes the Health Care Conscience Rights Act.

At the leadership level, Ryan’s recently released health-care plan mimics key provisions in the Conscience Protection Act. Both would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face alleged coercion or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in abortion care. The Conscience Protection Act goes a step further, allowing providers to sue not only for threats, but also for perceived threats.

The proposals would also codify and expand the Weldon Amendment, named for former Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL), who participated in Pitts’ conscience forum. The Weldon Amendment prohibits states that receive federal family planning funding from discriminating against health-care plans based on whether they cover abortion care. Currently, Congress must pass Weldon every year as an amendment to annual appropriations bills.

Administration Action Provides Impetus

There hadn’t been much public dialogue around conscience protections with the exception of some anti-choice groups that “have really been all over it,” the aide said. The National Right to Life issued an action alert, as did the Susan B. Anthony List, to galvanize support for the Conscience Protection Act.

The relative silence on the issue began to break after the Obama administration took a stand on abortion care in June.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights rejected anti-choice groups’ “right of conscience” complaint against California’s requirement that insurance plans must cover elective abortions under the definition of “basic health-care services.” Anti-choice groups had argued the California law violates the Weldon Amendment, but the administration found otherwise.

The California decision reinvigorated support for the Conscience Protection Act, the aide said. Ryan’s earlier health-care plan also specifically references the decision.

“We think this is going to be a big issue for us throughout the rest of this Congress,” the aide said.

Aide Outlines Additional Consequences

Beyond creating a private right of action and codifying Weldon, the Conscience Protection Act contains additional consequences for abortion care, the aide said.

The legislation would expand the definition of health-care providers to employers, social service organizations, and any other entity that offers insurance coverage, allowing them to raise objections under Weldon, the aide said. The aide characterized the change as a direct response to the California decision.

The legislation also broadens the list of objectionable services to include facilitating or making arrangements for abortion care, according to the aide.

The Republican-dominated House is likely to pass the Conscience Protection Act. But the aide did not expect it to advance in the Senate, which would all but certainly require a 60-vote threshold for such a controversial measure. More than anything, the aide said, the bill seems to be catering to anti-choice groups and long-time proponents of conscience clauses.

“The House oftentimes will pass these kinds of anti-choice proposals, and then they just go nowhere in the Senate,” the aide said.