Norton Calls on Senate to Address Vacancy Crisis in Local D.C. Courts, Introduces Bill to Expedite Appointment Process of Local D.C. Judges

Mar 28, 2019
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today sent a letter to the Senate urging it to address the vacancy crisis in the local District of Columbia courts.  Norton also introduced legislation that would allow nominees to the local D.C. courts to be seated after a 30-day congressional review period unless a resolution of disapproval was enacted into law during that period.  Currently, nominees to the local D.C. courts require affirmative Senate approval.  Delays in confirming nominees to the local D.C. courts have been a longstanding issue, regardless of which party controls the Senate, and has now assumed crisis proportions.

There are currently 10 vacancies on the D.C. Superior Court and two vacancies on the D.C. Court of Appeals.  With a total authorization of 61 associate judges and one chief judge on the Superior Court and eight associate judges and one chief judge on the Court of Appeals, these vacancies are leading to a potential crisis for the criminal and civil justice systems in the District.  The D.C. Superior Court has the highest number of case filings per capita in the United States.

Under Norton’s bill, the congressional review process for nominees would be the same one used for legislation passed by the D.C. Council.  The bill is prompted by the unique requirement that judges for the local D.C. courts be confirmed by the Senate, where nominees for the federal courts understandably get the primary focus and priority.

“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.  “However, the current process is so badly broken that it is doing harm to the administration of justice in the nation’s capital.  The Senate is understandably more focused on nominees for the federal courts and federal agencies than nominees for the local D.C. courts.  Whether under Democratic or Republican control of the Senate, we regularly face vacancy crises, which harm the operations of the civil and criminal justice systems in the District.  Congress created the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission to recommend candidates, and Congress should generally defer to its judgment.  My bill is a compromise that retains a congressional role, saves the Senate time by removing the need for committee and floor action and increases the odds that D.C. will have a full complement of local judges.”

 

The text of Norton’s letter is below:

March 28, 2019

 

The Honorable Mitch McConnell                               The Honorable Charles Schumer

Senate Majority Leader                                              Senate Minority Leader

317 Russell Senate Office Building                           322 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510                                              Washington, DC 20510

 

The Honorable Ron Johnson                                      The Honorable Gary Peters

Chairman                                                                     Ranking Member

Senate Committee on Homeland Security                  Senate Committee on Homeland Security

   and Governmental Affairs                                          and Governmental Affairs

340 Dirksen Senate Office Building                           340 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510                                              Washington, DC 20510

 

The Honorable James Lankford                                 The Honorable Kyrsten Sinema

Chairman                                                                     Ranking Member

Senate Committee on Homeland Security                  Senate Committee on Homeland Security

   and Governmental Affairs                                          and Governmental Affairs

Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs                         Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs

   and Federal Management                                            and Federal Management

340 Dirksen Senate Office Building                           340 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510                                              Washington, DC 20510

 

Dear Leader McConnell, Leader Schumer, Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Peters, Chairman Lankford and Ranking Member Sinema:

            I write to express my urgent concern about the large number of vacancies in the local District of Columbia courts.  There are currently 10 vacancies on the Superior Court and two vacancies on the Court of Appeals.  Because the District, like the other big cities, is beset with problems, such as our escalating homicide rate, these vacancies affect public safety.  As you may know, the Superior Court has the highest number of case filings per capita in the United States.  With only a total authorization of 61 associate judges and one chief judge on the Superior Court and eight associate judges and one chief judge on the Court of Appeals, these vacancies are leading to a potential crisis for the criminal and civil justice systems in the District.  There are several nominees pending before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (HSGAC).  I ask that HSGAC take swift action in considering these nominees and that the full Senate consider them as expeditiously as possible.  I appreciate that HSGAC has scheduled hearings for James A. Crowell, IV, and Jason Park to be Associate Judges on the Superior Court.  This is an important first step.

As you know, there are two levels of local courts in the District, the Superior Court, which is the District’s trial court, and the Court of Appeals.  There are currently four nominees pending before HSGAC for the Superior Court.  I ask that you consider these nominees as quickly as possible.  More importantly, however, with the high percentage of vacancies on the D.C. courts, as more nominees for both D.C. courts come to the Senate, I hope that they will be given swift review in HSGAC and then before the full Senate.

Because of these ongoing vacancies, including three Superior Court seats that have been vacant since 2016, and one Court of Appeals seat that has been vacant since 2013, there has been a growing backlog of cases facing both courts.  This, of course, inevitably leads to delays in hearing important cases and will eventually lead to serious due process and other constitutional concerns.  The Superior Court has jurisdiction over all local D.C. matters, both civil and criminal.  Delays in confirming nominees lead to greater strains on the court, greater caseloads and overwork for current judges, and, of more consequence, denial of due process and possibly even an inability to keep certain offenders in jail.

We cannot sustain any further delays in considering nominees to these courts.

I appreciate your consideration, and am happy to answer any questions you may have about this urgent issue for the District.

Sincerely,             

Eleanor Holmes Norton