A partisan standoff on judicial nominees has left Atlanta-based federal courts shorthanded, with even more strain to come as U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell Jr. said Tuesday that he will take senior status with a reduced caseload in January.
Currently there are two longstanding vacancies on the U.S. District Court, including one slot that has been vacant since February 2009, and another on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. With Pannell, the district now has nine active judges.
The White House and Georgia's two Republican U.S. senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, have been unable to agree on the court nominations.
Since criminal cases take top priority, civil cases often lag because there are fewer active judges to hear the cases, Atlanta plaintiffs lawyer Lee Parks said.
"The time to wait for a trial is significantly longer," he said. "There's no question about it. It's a real problem."
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Parks said parties are more often opting to mediate or use dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve their cases, instead of waiting to go to trial.
"But there are some cases that absolutely must be tried," he said. "And in employment cases, the delays can be crippling to plaintiffs. These are often people who no longer have a job. What are they going to do?"
The two district court openings have been designated “judicial emergencies” by the U.S. Courts, based on the time it has taken to fill them and the number of cases that would have been assigned each judge.
The 11th Circuit opening, created by Judge Stanley Birch in August 2010, also has been declared a judicial emergency. The circuit has jurisdiction over cases in Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
No pick for any of the vacancies has made it to the committee hearing stage and the process typically slows in an election year, with Republicans hoping for a new administration with more friendly nominees.
But the tango between Georgia’s senators and the White House has been odd even by the standards of the often contentious judicial nomination process, according to longtime observers.
Chambliss and Isakson refuse to say why they are blocking President Barack Obama's nomination of Atlanta attorney Jill Pryor for the 11th Circuit appeals court, after both senators said they would approve her if she were nominated to the district court.
In January Chambliss and Isakson wrote to the White House saying they would approve Pryor and U.S. Magistrate Linda Walker for the district court openings, and Atlanta attorney Mark Cohen for the appeals slot.
Obama nominated Walker for the district court judgeship in early 2011, but as is often the case with multiple nominees from the same state the White House demanded she be included as a package with federal public defender Natasha Perdew Silas, whom Isakson and Chambliss blocked without giving a reason.
The Senate returned both nominees to the White House at year's end, and Obama has not renominated anyone for the district court openings.
The two senators also have not given "blue slips" to the Senate Judiciary Committee to allow a hearing on Pryor, a longstanding courtesy for home-state senators. Representatives of both senators said they do not comment on judicial nominees.
“They need to explain publicly why they’re holding up her nomination, which has been vacant for a long time,” said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias, who studies the confirmation process. “They’re sort of turning the Constitution on its head. The senators don’t nominate and give the president a chance to reject.”
Party politics is a potential motive. According to campaign finance records, Pryor often donates to Democrats, and last year she gave $2,500 to Obama’s re-election campaign.
Cohen, the senators’ preferred appellate pick, served as executive counsel and chief of staff to Gov. Zell Miller.
The American Bar Association, which assesses judicial nominees, gave Pryor its highest rating -- well qualified. A Yale Law School Graduate, Pryor, 49, has been a litigator for the Atlanta firm Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore since 1989 and has focused on business litigation and appellate work. She declined to comment Tuesday.
Dozens of lawyers and activists visited the White House Monday to discuss federal court vacancies, including Atlanta lawyer Jeffrey Bramlett, the former president of the State Bar of Georgia. Obama made an appearance in the Roosevelt Room to stress his desire to push for more confirmations.
“The president is pretty serious about the people he’s nominated,” Bramlett said. “He said he recognizes that one of the most important legacies of a president is the people he puts on the federal bench, those who are still making decisions after he’s gone.”
Pannell, 66, said Tuesday that he has notified Obama of his intent to take senior status on Jan. 31. A former Superior Court judge in North Georgia, Pannell was nominated to the federal bench in 1999 by President Bill Clinton.
“It’s a great job,” Pannell said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the peak of the profession for being a trial judge.”
Glenn Sugameli, who tracks judicial nominations for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, noted that Georgia's two senators were outspoken in opposing filibusters of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. In a 2005 joint op-ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Chambliss and Isakson wrote “denial of an up-or-down vote goes against basic principles of fairness."
Sugameli said the turnaround is striking, considering that the senators are preventing a hearing, much less a filibuster.
“To pervert that into a situation where you’re essentially demanding the right to make all of the nominations for all of the slots is outrageous, unwarranted, and ... it really hurts the people not only in Georgia but in the rest of the circuit for whom justice delayed is going to continue to be justice denied,” Sugameli said.