WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- The chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee says the GOP's "escalating obstruction" of judicial nominations is threatening the Senate's ability to "do the work of the American people."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., made the comments in an opinion piece published in The National Law Journal Monday.
Later that day, the Senate failed to invoke cloture on Robert Leon Wilkins' nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered by some to be the second most important in the country after the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was the third time in weeks Senate Republicans blocked a nominee to the court.
"Through this obstruction, Senate Republicans have crossed the line from use of the Senate rules to abuse of the rules, exploiting those rules to undermine our ability to address national problems," Leahy wrote. "This same abuse recently, and needlessly, shut down our government, and also poses a threat to the independent, judicial branch of government."
The senior senator said he is "especially concerned" with how the GOP's obstruction is damaging the Senate's ability to fulfill its constitutional responsibility of "advice and consent."
"The Senate has a unique responsibility to ensure that the judicial branch has the judges it needs to do its job. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have abandoned this responsibility, using unprecedented filibusters to delay and obstruct President Obama from appointing to the federal bench even nominations that enjoy bipartisan support," he wrote.
"Senate Republicans have forced cloture, a procedural mechanism to bring a matter to a vote, to end filibusters on 34 nominees, nearly twice as many nominees than required cloture during President Bush's two terms. Almost all of these nominees were, by any standard, noncontroversial and ultimately were confirmed overwhelmingly."
Republican obstruction, Leahy noted, has left the federal judiciary often with 90 or more vacancies over the past five years.
Now, he said, Senate Republicans are trying to justify their opposition to the three D.C. Circuit nominees -- Patricia Millett, Cornelia "Nina" Pillard and Wilkins -- with an argument that the court's caseload doesn't warrant the appointments.
But Leahy points out that during the Bush administration, the same senators confirmed judges to the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and again the 10th seat on the court when the caseload was actually lower than it is currently.
"Senate Republicans' obstruction is more than unfortunate," he wrote. "It is politics at its worst."
Leahy, who plans to fight for the three D.C. Circuit nominees, said a majority of senators will need to consider changing the Senate rules that the minority "have abused for too long."
The senator isn't the only one fighting for Millett, Pillard and Wilkins.
President Barack Obama, in a statement late Monday, said he would not "sit idly by" as the GOP continues to block his nominees.
"Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard and Judge Robert Wilkins have all received the highest possible rating from the non-partisan American Bar Association," the President noted. "They have broad bipartisan support, and no one has questioned their merit. Yet Senate Republicans have blocked all three from receiving a yes-or-no vote.
"This obstruction is completely unprecedented."
The President said Senate Republicans are "standing in the way" of a fully-functioning judiciary that serves the American people.
"The American people and our judicial system deserve better," he said.
"A majority of the United States Senate supports these three extraordinary nominees, and it is time for simple yes-or-no votes without further obstruction or delay."
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.