Monday, December 24, 2012

Obama’s impact on federal judiciary

It takes a calculator and perhaps the rigor of Sherlock Holmes to cut through the partisan rhetoric about President Obama’s first-term record on judicial nominations. But the bottom line is clear enough.

There are more vacancies on the federal courts now than when Obama took office nearly four years ago. And he is the first president in generations to fail to put a nominee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the second most influential court in the land and traditionally a training ground for Supreme Court justices.

Obama has, of course, left his mark on the high court by nominating Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Their confirmations leave those two seats for decades in liberal hands, and marked a historic diversification of the court.

But, depending on what the Senate does in these final days,Obama’s record on the rest of the federal judiciary will show one more opening on the nation’s powerful 13 courts of appeal than when he took office, and more than a dozen additional vacant district court judgeships.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) blames Senate Republicans for foot-dragging on nominees that he says are utterly uncontroversial.

“These delays mean that the Senate will, again, be needlessly forced to devote the first several months of next year confirming judges who could and should have been confirmed the previous year,” Leahy said earlier this month.

He added that the increase in vacancies “is bad for our federal courts and for the American people who depend on them for justice.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s ranking Republican, responds that the Senate has confirmed at least as many as were approved during President George W. Bush’s first term. “The continued complaints we hear about how unfairly this president has been treated are unfounded,” he said.
Russell Wheeler, a judicial scholar at the Brookings Institution, has taken a more detached look at the process. “There is so much propaganda out there,” Wheeler says. “It’s almost as if they are speaking different languages.”

Wheeler’s conclusion: “The contentiousness that affected President William Clinton’s and President George W. Bush’s efforts to appoint judges to the courts of appeals did not appear to worsen during Obama’s first term, but battles have heated up over district nominations.”

Drastically increased delays in confirming district court judges are part of the reason for the higher vacancy rates, Wheeler said, but the Obama administration is responsible for sending up fewer nominees and taking longer to do it.

District judges are at the first tier of the federal judiciary; they decide individual cases and their decisions do not create precedent for other judges. In the past, confirmation of district judges was seen as somewhat routine.

But that has changed, Wheeler said, with longer wait times and more contested votes. The average time from nomination to confirmation for a Clinton district judge was about three months. That grew to 154 days for a Bush nominee, Wheeler said, compared to 223 days for Obama’s choices.
 Nominations to the appeals courts are always more controversial. Those judges hear tens of thousands of appeals each year — by comparison, the Supreme Court hears arguments in about 80 — and their judgments become precedent in the states within those circuits.
 Despite some high-profile fights, however, Wheeler found that Obama’s circuit court nominees have fared about as well as those of his predecessors. Or as he put it, “That the Senate has since 1993 denied confirmation to three of every 10 circuit nominees reflects a new (and unfortunate) normal, but at least so far it has not worsened under Obama.”

Obama’s nominees, in fact, have had a shorter path from nomination to confirmation than did Bush’s — 240 days compared to 283 days, according to Wheeler’s calculations.

No court is more contested by either side than the D.C. circuit, for obvious reasons. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg all put in time on the court before being picked for the Supreme Court; Kagan was nominated for the D.C. circuit but was blocked by Senate Republicans.

Even though there are three vacancies on the court — there will be a fourth next year — Obama did not submit a nominee until September 2010. Then, Republicans blocked nominee Caitlin Halligan, general counsel for the New York district attorney’s office, and an additional choice, California law professor Goodwin Liu. Liu has since been appointed to the California Supreme Court, and Obama will try again on Halligan.

Last June, he picked Sri Srinivasan, deputy U.S. solicitor general and a former clerk to retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for another seat on the court. Srinivasan has not had a Judiciary Committee hearing. (Lest one think it is only Republicans who do the blocking, Senate Democrats ran out the clock the first time Roberts was nominated for the court.)

While liberal groups complain about Republican obstruction, they have also been critical of the White House. The American Prospect recently featured a long piece called “The Courts: How Obama Dropped the Ball.”
But as Wheeler points out, a two-term president almost always has a major impact on the makeup of the federal judiciary.

“Democratic appointees, who in 2009 constituted about a third of active circuit judges, might constitute about two-thirds in 2017,” Wheeler wrote.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Obama offers 'love and prayers' to Newtown, says these tragedies must end

President Obama came to Connecticut on Sunday to express his sorrow for those suffering after the fatal mass shooting of 26 people and to call for an end to such incidents --  offering “the love and hope of a nation” and saying “these tragedies have got to end.”

The president spoke at the Newtown High School after meeting privately with families of the victims and emergency personnel who responded to the deadly shootings Friday inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“I am very mindful that words cannot match the depths of your sorrow,” the president said. “But whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. … Newtown, you are not alone.”

The president spoke at a lectern, in front of which was table set with 26 glass-covered candles, one for each of the 6- and 7-year-olds fatally shot.

“Surely, we can do better than this,” said Obama in what was his fourth trip as president to a grieving city after a mass shooting. "We must change."

The president vowed during his roughly 18-minute speech that in the coming weeks he will use whatever powers possible to “prevent another tragedy like this” -- including calling upon law enforcement and mental-health experts to help.

A White House official said Obama was the primary author of his speech and edited his remarks on the flight to Connecticut with White House speechwriter Cody Keenan.

The president was introduced by Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, who said Obama told him Friday was the hardest day of his presidency.

“We need this … to begin our long journey through grief and loss,” said the Rev. Matt Crebbin, of the Newtown Congressional Church, who began the prayer vigil. “We are all in this together.”

Meanwhile, the grieving town braced itself Monday to bury the first two of the victims and debated when classes could resume -- and where, given the carnage in the building and the children's associations with it.
"We're just now getting ready to talk to our son about who was killed," said Robert Licata, the father of a student who escaped harm during the shooting. "He's not even there yet."

Newtown officials couldn't say whether Sandy Hook Elementary would ever reopen. Monday classes were canceled, and the district was considering eventually sending surviving Sandy Hook students to a former school building in a neighboring town.

Authorities identified the shooter Friday as 20-year-old Adam Lanza. He fatally shot his mother before going to the school and killed himself.

Authorities said Lanza was carrying an arsenal of hundreds of rounds of deadly ammunition -- enough to kill nearly every student in the school if given enough time, raising the chilling notion that the bloodbath could have been even worse. Lanza shot himself in the head when he heard police approaching the classroom where he was gunning down helpless children.

Lanza was described as a bright but painfully awkward student who seemed to have no close friends. 

In high school, he was active in the technology club. The club adviser remembered that he had "some disabilities" and seemed not to feel pain like the other students. That meant Lanza required special supervision when using soldering tools, for instance. 

He also had an occasional "episode" in which he seemed to withdraw completely from his surroundings, the adviser said. Authorities said Lanza had no criminal history, and it was unclear whether he had a job.

Last summer, Obama went to Aurora, Colo., to visit victims and families after a shooting spree at a movie theater in the Denver suburb left 12 dead.

He went to Tucson, Ariz., in January of last year after six people were killed and 13 were wounded, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, outside a grocery store. Keenan also helped Obama write that  speech.
In November 2009, Obama traveled to Fort Hood, Texas, to speak at the memorial service for 13 service members who were killed on the post by another soldier.

After the Colorado shooting in July, the White House made clear that Obama would not propose new gun restrictions in an election year and said he favored better enforcement of existing laws.

However, the Connecticut shootings may have changed the political dynamic in Washington, although public opinion in favor of gun control has declined over the years. While the White House has said Obama stands by his desire to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons, he has not pushed Congress to act.

Several Democratic lawmakers, during appearances on the Sunday talk shows, said the gruesome killings at the school were the final straw in a debate on gun laws that has fallen to the wayside in recent years.

"This conversation has been dominated in Washington by -- you know and I know -- gun lobbies that have an agenda" said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate. "We need people, just ordinary Americans, to come together, and speak out, and to sit down and calmly reflect on how far we go."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who is retiring, suggested a national commission on mass violence that would examine gun laws and what critics see as loopholes, as well as the mental health system and violence in movies and video games. Durbin said he supports the idea, and would add school safety to the list of topics to examine.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she would push legislation next year to ban future sales of military-assault weapons like those used in the elementary school shooting. The bill will ban big clips, drums and strips of more than 10 bullets.

Gun rights activists remained largely quiet on the issue, all but one declining to appear on the talk shows. However, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, defended the sale of assault weapons and said that the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School, who authorities say died trying to overtake the shooter, should herself have been armed.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Obama Bets Re-Election Gave Him Power to Win Fiscal Cliff

President Barack Obama’s hard stance on the “fiscal cliff” talks is a bet that his re-election gave him the political clout to force Republicans to accept higher taxes on upper income Americans as a first step toward reducing the federal deficit. 

Obama’s aggressive posture was shown in the proposal Timothy F. Geithner laid out for congressional leaders last week: a reprise of the president’s prior budget proposals, with $1.6 trillion in tax increases and about $350 billion in health care savings, primarily in Medicare. He also asked for an Aug. 1 deadline for decisions on income tax overhaul and further spending cuts.

“You could see the shock in the Republicans -- this is not what they were expecting from the White House,” said Stan Collender, managing director of Qorvis Communications LLC in Washington and a former staff member for the House and Senate budget committees. “There was almost euphoria among Democrats that the president was playing hardball.”

The two parties are in stalemate over what spending cuts and revenue increases should be approved to cut a budget deficit that’s exceeded $1 trillion for each of the four years Obama’s been in office. The administration says no agreement is possible unless Republicans agree to increase tax rates for the highest earning Americans, a stance underscored by Geithner in a sweep of the Sunday talk shows. Republicans oppose any tax rate increase and demand deeper cuts than Obama has offered, a line that House Speaker John Boehner drew on one show yesterday.

No Compromises

Both administration officials and congressional Republicans say they want a deal before year’s end -- without either side publicly offering any compromises.

“There’s not going to be an agreement without rates going up,” Geithner said in a taped interview that aired yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. Republicans will “own the responsibility for the damage” if they “force higher rates on virtually all Americans because they’re unwilling to let tax rates go up on 2 percent of Americans.”

Obama wants to boost top income-tax rates back to the levels they were when President Bill Clinton left office. The top rate then was 39.6 percent, compared with 35 percent today.
Boehner said Republicans aren’t ready to give in, and the president should take the lead by offering concessions.

House Majority

“They must have forgotten that Republicans continue to hold a majority in the House,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The president’s idea of a negotiation is ‘roll over and do what I ask.’ We need to find common ground, and we need to find it quickly.”

Collender puts the odds of failure at 60 percent, as both sides need to prove their mettle to core supporters.
The risk for Obama is that Republicans will match his brinkmanship and no deal will be reached. The result would be the “fiscal cliff,” the more than $600 billion in automatic spending cuts and tax increases that start kicking in automatically at the beginning of the new year.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in an August report said the tax increases and spending cuts would shrink economic output next year by 0.5 percent and push the unemployment rate to about 9 percent.

Moody’s Investors Service said in September it may join Standard & Poor’s in downgrading the U.S.’s credit rating unless the president and Congress reduce the percentage of debt to gross domestic product.

Markets React

Stocks have been whipsawed since the election as Obama and Boehner dueled in public.
The benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (SPX) increased 0.5 percent to 1,416.18 last week and it extended its rally since Nov. 16 to 4.1 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average advanced 15.90 points, or 0.1 percent, to 13,025.58.

The bond market hasn’t demonstrated the same level of concern. While total national debt has soared to more than $16 trillion from less than $9 trillion in 2007, U.S. borrowing costs have tumbled. The yield on the 10-year note touched a record low 1.379 percent July 25, down from more than 5 percent in mid-2007.
Obama’s strategy is borne, in part, out of lessons Obama and his advisers take from the failed 2011 attempt to reach a grand bargain on long-term debt reduction.

Obama and Boehner tried to forge a compromise in private talks. Instead of clearing the path, their effort collapsed and served to increase resistance among members of both parties in Congress.