Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) urged the Senate to address the growing number of vacancies in Washington, D.C. courts and introduced legislation to allow nominees for local D.C. court positions to be seated without a vote of approval from the Senate March 28.
Nominees to D.C. court positions must receive affirmative approval by the U.S. Senate in order to assume their nominated positions. There are currently 10 vacancies in the D.C. Superior Court and two vacancies on the D.C. Court of Appeals. These vacancies pose a threat to the District’s judicial system, according to a March 28 news release by Norton’s office.
“The current process is so badly broken that it is doing harm to the administration of justice in the nation’s capital.” Norton said. “These vacancies are leading to a potential crisis for the criminal and civil justice systems in the District.”
Three of the Superior Court seats have been vacant since 2016, and one seat in the Court of Appeals has been vacant since 2013.
Because local D.C. judge confirmations require affirmative Senate approval, these confirmations are often delayed as nominations for federal courts receive top priority. Under Norton’s 30-day congressional review proposal, the nominee would automatically receive approval as long as Senators do not enact resolutions of disapproval during the review period, bypassing the Senate approval.
D.C. local courts uniquely require their judges to receive Senate confirmation because it is not a state.
The bill comes after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) met with President Donald Trump to discuss the backlog of judges in district courts March 13.
Calls for increased independence of the District’s judicial system have long identified the prevalence of vacancies for D.C. court judges for the necessity of allowing nominations to move forward without explicit Senate approval. Norton already proposed this bill before in May 2018, and Irvin Nathan, former attorney general and president of Council for Court Excellence, wrote to senators regarding the consequences of these vacancies.
The CCE, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the District’s courts, found that delays in Senate confirmations were the primary responsibility for the vacancies, which had deleterious effects on the District’s judicial system by causing judges to take on extra work, Nathan wrote in the letter.
“Not only does this affect sitting judges, it impedes due process for all litigants involved,” the letter reads. “The result of these increased burdensome and time-consuming demands is the postponement of justice for all parties.”
The proposed legislation follows a series of bills introduced by Norton to grant D.C. more autonomy. Her proposals include eliminating the congressional review period of the District’s laws and establishing a local prosecutor.
In January, Norton introduced H.R. 1, a bill that includes language to grant D.C. statehood. The bill would give D.C. full congressional representation and self-governance in accordance to the other 50 U.S. states. The first endorsement of D.C. statehood passed in the House of Representatives with a 234 to 193 vote March 8.
Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted that the D.C. residents are disproportionately underrepresented in Congress in a Jan. 28 tweet and voiced her support for H.R. 1.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), another longtime supporter of D.C. statehood, introduced another bill, H.R. 51, which would moves beyond endorsing to officially grant D.C. statehood, Feb. 28. The bill has 32 cosponsors.
Though the push would grant the District greater autonomy over its judicial system, it still does not grant D.C. judicial independence from the Senate. Norton does not expect the Senate to relinquish its control of nominations to the courts in the absence of D.C. statehood, she said in the news release.
“Pending statehood, when D.C. would have full control over the appointment of its local judges, the Senate may not be willing to give up complete control over D.C. judges,” Norton said.
Hoya Staff Writer Will Cassou contributed reporting.