Why should a U.S. senator from Iowa hold up a much-needed federal judge for our region? The Eastern District of California, which serves 34 counties, has one of the biggest caseloads in the country and officially is in "emergency" status. That means 7 million people -- more than twice the population of Iowa -- have to wait far longer than most Americans to get their cases heard. The district needs more judges, especially in the Fresno division, which is even more understaffed than the Sacramento division.
While President Barack Obama has been slow in making nominations, getting qualified jurists through the U.S. Senate has been far too tedious. It took Kimberly Mueller six months to get confirmation as a judge for the Eastern District in 2010. Now, it's Troy L. Nunley's turn to wait.
Nunley, a Sacramento Superior Court judge, was nominated in June. He has the blessing of the American Bar Association and breezed through a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September. Yet when his nomination came up for a vote last week, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, put it off.
As allowed by committee rules, he didn't give a reason. Some advocacy groups say Grassley has routinely obstructed nominations for weeks, worsening what they call a vacancy crisis in the federal courts -- 83 at last count.
Two other impressive nominees for federal courts in California -- Jon Tigar and William Orrick III, both for the Northern District -- are also lingering. They both received the ABA's highest endorsement -- "unanimously well qualified" -- and were approved by the Judiciary Committee in August. But their nominations haven't been voted on by the full Senate.
There are 17 other nominees with committee approval who are waiting for Senate votes.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, called Friday on Republicans to allow votes during the lame-duck session. "This obstruction is not good for the country," he said. "It results in denying Americans the judges they need to administer justice." He's right. If the nominees are qualified, they shouldn't be held hostage to other political concerns. This logjam in our legal process hurts everyone.