After months of delay, a unanimous U.S. Senate on Monday confirmed Alfred Bennett to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, cracking open slightly a national logjam of judicial nominations and a backlog of cases.
Bennett’s 95-0 vote, though welcomed by legal reformers, still leaves in limbo at least two other pending confirmation votes for Texas judges – a vestige of congressional gridlock despite assurances by Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and other GOP leaders who had vowed to push for swift confirmation.
No final votes have been scheduled for Texas judges George Hanks Jr. and Jose Olvera Jr., although Senate aides said they could be confirmed in the coming weeks. Texas’ 11 federal judicial vacancies are the most of any state.
Bennett’s is the first judicial nomination to clear the Senate since Republicans took over in January.
None of the Texas judges are considered controversial. Originally nominated in September, they represent a diverse new generation of judges: Bennett and Hanks are black; Olvera is Latino.
During confirmation hearings in February all three won praise from Cornyn and fellow Republican Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas. At the time, Cornyn said he expected the three Texas judges to be confirmed expeditiously.
But the decision by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to hold back Senate votes on Olvera and Hanks has mystified court watchers.
“Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, need to oil the judicial confirmation machinery they’ve allowed to rust over since they’ve taken control, and get the gears of justice moving efficiently again,” said Judith Schaeffer, vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center.
Of the Lone Star state’s 11 federal judicial vacancies, nine are in district courts and two on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews cases from Texas.
That is one-fifth of 55 total current vacancies nationwide, according to Glenn Sugameli, who tracks judicial appointments for Judging the Environment, a Defenders of Wildlife project. Meanwhile, the nation faces a record backlog of more than 330,000 civil cases.
I know Judge Bennett – in the Small World department, one of his cousins was a coworker of mine for many years – and he will be an excellent addition to the federal bench. He was first elected in 2008, so he’d have been on the ballot next fall. Greg Abbott will get to appoint his replacement (would that be his first?), so there will be a new Civil Court bench for Democrats to aim at. I’m guessing that will be a contested primary. Indeed, as of Tuesday afternoon former District Court Judge Dion Ramos, who was elected to complete a term on the 55th Civil Court bench in 2008 but then lost in 2010, has announced his intent to run for the 61st. I expect others will follow. Anyway, congratulations to Judge Al Bennett, a swell guy who truly deserves this appointment. May judges Hanks and Olvera join him soonest.