WASHINGTON (CN) - Republicans at a House Judiciary Committee hearing condemned President Obama's nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals as political court-packing that will cost U.S. taxpayers an unnecessary $1 million per judge per year.
"These three nominations, with the confirmation of another, is intended to pack the D.C. Circuit to capacity of 11 authorized judgeships," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., at the Monday hearing his party called "Are More Judges Always the Answer?"
Republicans vehemently condemned Obama's nominees Robert Wilkins, Cornelia Pillard and Patricia Millet throughout the two-hour hearing, often directing their anger at Nan Aron, the president of Alliance for Justice, who testified.
"It's either [Obama's] asleep at the wheel or he's negligent," Georgia Republican Doug Collins said, reacting to Aron's statement that the D.C. Circuit is the "crown jewel" of the judiciary and the "farm team" to the U.S. Supreme Court, and needs to be filled.
Few Democrats spoke at the two-hour hearing - ranking Democrat John Conyers of Michigan stepped out just before the hearing began and never returned. Those who did speak criticized Republicans' efforts to block all nominations coming from the White House.
"The entire budget of the federal judiciary makes up less than 1 percent of our entire federal budget," said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. "It is not driving budget deficits and debt, and we know that this failure to adequately staff the judiciary is not about saving taxpayer dollars. It's really about forming a judiciary that has certain ideological views, and it's my friends on the other side of the aisle that seem to have that aspiration."
Johnson said federal court vacancy rates are at historic levels.
Aron's organization, the Alliance for Justice, states that more than 10 percent of federal judgeships are unfilled.
According to the www.uscourts.gov website, checked this morning, 74 of the 677 U.S. District Judge seats are vacant, with 41 nominees pending; and 17 of the 179 seats on the Federal Appellate Courts are empty, with nine nominees pending.
"Due in large part to the Republican obstructionism, nominees to the federal bench face record wait times from nominations to current confirmation in the Senate as compared to recent administrations," Johnson said.
"We are treating the judiciary like it's a stepchild, something we just lord over."
Aron testified that the president's nominations to the D.C. Circuit fulfill his legal responsibility to staff the judiciary. But Republicans blasted her for a recent news story that quoted her as saying that D.C. Circuit judges had been thwarting the president's agenda.
The president himself called Republican efforts to block his judicial nominations "unprecedented" during his June announcement of nominations for the D.C. Circuit, though he acknowledge that the Democrats had "not been completely blameless" of using the same tactics when he was a member of the Senate.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, made the short trip across Capitol Hill to testify at the hearing and promote his bill, the Court Efficiency Act, which would remove one seat from the D.C. Circuit and reallocate seats to the Second and Eleventh Circuits.
Grassley claimed that the president plans to pack the court with judges sympathetic to his agenda to act as his rubber stamp and eat up tax dollars. Grassley and House Republicans also pointed to the president's desire to fill the D.C. Circuit before other judicial emergencies as evidence of Obama's desire to cement his political allies within the judiciary.
Grassley left abruptly after his testimony without taking questions from committee members.
Also testifying was Ambassador C. Boyden Gray, who pointed to shrinking caseloads at the D.C. Circuit, stating that more judgeships were not necessary; and Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, who stated that Obama's nominations were "simply due to politics."
Aron acknowledged that presidential nominations are political by nature, but defended the administration's nominations as filling a void in a court that weighs in on the most complex and important issues in the country.
"There are currently three vacancies out of out 11 seats on the court," Aron said. "That is often described as the most important court in the country. The court shouldn't be forced to do its job with 27 percent of its seats empty. It's like telling a football team they can only use eight players on Sunday instead of 11."
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