On September 29th, the Maine Women’s Policy Center joined with Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights (GRR!) and Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center to preset Our Rights at Risk at the Bangor Public Library. Following are some of the remarks made by Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center:
Decisions by the Supreme Court affect women’s daily lives. Whether striking down discrimination, as the court did in Windsor v. the United States and Obergefell v. Hodges; upholding access to health care, as the court did in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius and again in King v. Burwell and most recently in Whole Women’s Health Care v. Texas; or making decisions that undermine a woman’s ability to earn a living and support herself and her family, as the court did in the cases of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber and Dukes v. Wal-Mart, actions of the Supreme Court have a powerful and broad impact on the lives of women.
It matters tremendously who serves as a federal judge. Appointments to the federal bench are lifetime appointments.
Issue #1: personal and professional diversity
It is clearly essential that our federal judges have the qualification and temperament to serve. It is equally important that the federal courts be made up of Americans with a wide variety of personal and professional backgrounds.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor reinforced this in her blistering dissent to the majority ruling in Utah v Strieff, when the court ruled that evidence found during unlawful police stops could be used in court. She wrote “For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’— instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”
Fortunately, President Obama has done more to diversify the bench than any other president. 43% of his nominees have been women, and 36% have been non-white.
Issue #2: obstruction of nominees
It is also essential that our federal courts be adequately staffed, so that they can move forward and make decisions on the cases brought before them. Behind every case are people whose lives are affected. As the old saying goes, “justice delayed is justice denied.”
We were all shocked last February when Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly. Within an hour of the announcement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated his cat5egorical rejection of any replacement put forward by President Obama. On March 16, President Obama announced his nominee for the vacant seat, Merrick Garland, chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. More than six months later, the Senate still has not held or scheduled a hearing on his qualification to serve. In fact, Merrick Garland has now waited longer than any nominee in 100 years for a confirmation hearing.
Maine’s senators have each met with Judge Garland. Both have indicated that he seemed well qualified and called for hearings. Yet the majority party in the US Senate has refused to act.
But the Supreme Court vacancy is just the tip of the iceberg. Across the country, today’s statistics are:
91 federal judicial vacancies
1 on the U.S. Supreme Court
12 in circuit courts
78 in district courts
35 judicial emergencies
5 for circuit courts
30 for district courts
54 nominees to the federal bench
46 district court
7 circuit court
1 on the U.S. Supreme Court
25 nominees pending on the floor
And today’s vacancies are not the full picture. The average age of retirement from the Supreme Court has been 79. Justice Ginsburg is 83, Justice Kennedy is 80, Justice Breyer is 78. If Merrick Garland is not confirmed by January 20, 2017, the next president could nominate as many as 4 Supreme Court justices.
Meanwhile, here in Maine, one of our 3 federal judges, Judge John Woodcock, has announced his intent to move to senior status in the summer of 2017, creating a vacancy. Senators Collins and King will ultimately recommend a nominee to the next president after an arcane process that is not necessarily easy to follow or influence.