Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Record Judge Vacancies Could See Trump Recast Courts

Missouri River Federal Courthouse. (Credit: U.S. Courts) Click to Enlarge.
A broad refusal by Senate Republicans to approve judicial nominees during the last two years of Obama’s second term means Trump could move quickly to fill 114 vacant federal judge positions. U.S. Courts data shows that to be the most vacancies in at least 20 years.

Trump is a foe of environmental regulations who is working quickly to undo rules, programs and agreements backed by President Obama to slow global warming.  By appointing federal judges with similar views, Trump could make it harder for future administrations to secure courtroom approvals for new climate rules for decades to come.

“It’s a very serious problem,” said Glenn Sugameli, an attorney for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife who tracks federal judge vacancies and nominations.  “It does create more opportunities for bad judges to get confirmed, for bad decisions to be issued, and for courts to tilt.”
Three quarters of the vacancies are on district courts.  These lower courts do much of the federal judicial system’s grunt work, holding criminal and civil trials, and hearing challenges to the use of federal rules covering everything from greenhouse gas pollution to immigration.

At direct stake for the climate is the balance in how the federal justice system views federal regulations.  While laws and regulations are needed to prevent corporations from wantonly polluting, such rules can reduce personal liberties.

Legal battles over air and water quality and climate pollution tend to boil down to a persistent debate:  The fossil fuel industry promotes personal liberties over regulations, because it can be cheaper to pollute than to abide by anti-pollution rules, while environmental groups support regulations.

Some judges favor strong regulations, while others favor personal liberties.  Supreme Court justices picked by Republican presidents have tended to favor personal liberties while judges chosen by Democrats tend to favor stronger regulations.

The influence of party politics in federal judge appointments continues to escalate.  “Presidents have long appointed judges of their own party,” Columbia Law School professor Michael Gerrard said.  “But the confirmation process wasn't always political.”

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