Senate’s Endless Waiting Game

Margaret Morrow, former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. and the State Bar of California, was named by President Clinton last year to a seat on the federal district court in Los Angeles. That seat has been vacant for 14 months now. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the nomination last year but the full Senate has never voted.

This case is only one of many in a deplorable situation that has gone on far too long. Justice is not served by an empty bench. Nor is society. Whichever party holds the Congress and the White House, gamesmanship over judicial appointments produces no winners. It only leaves a void--currently nearly 100 seats on the federal bench.

When Clinton renominated Morrow this year, her confirmation should have been a formality. Instead, the Judiciary Committee decided to hold another hearing. Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said some new committee members wanted to question her. This time, Morrow was grilled over an innocuous remark in a 1995 speech. “The law is almost by definition on the cutting edge of social thought,” Morrow had told a conference on women and the law. “It is a vehicle through which we ease the transition from the rules which have always been to the rules which are to be.”

Hatch and his colleagues asked whether this meant Morrow would change the rules as a federal judge; would she, in other words, be an “activist”? Morrow replied that her comments were meant solely to encourage lawyers to work toward a better balance between their family and work life, to forge new “rules” to navigate a complex world. Hardly a radical notion.


Now, four weeks later, the Judiciary Committee has neither voted on Morrow’s renomination nor scheduled a vote. Last week, Morrow received a list of additional questions; among them was one asking if she had supported the retention of Rose Bird, the liberal former chief justice of the California Supreme Court.

The treatment of Morrow’s nomination is typical in this Congress. More than 12% of all district and appellate court seats are empty; 23 of these vacancies are considered “judicial emergencies” because they have been unfilled for more than 18 months. Certainly Clinton has been too slow in making nominations, but the Senate has done worse. In 1996, it confirmed just 17 federal judges, the lowest number in recent memory. Its record of delay, attempts to kill funding for some appellate seats and its harassment of Morrow and other qualified nominees reveal a deeply troubling partisanship.

Last we looked, the U.S. Constitution grants the president the power to nominate and directs the Senate to “advise and consent,” not stonewall. The 26 nominations now pending would be a good place to start.