Why Courts Matter
The federal judiciary plays a vital role in the lives of all Americans. Every issue we care about -- voting rights, employment discrimination, environmental regulation, health care, immigration, reproductive justice -- will ultimately be adjudicated by a federal court.
The Federal Court System
Think of the federal court system as a pyramid. At the top is the Supreme Court, which is often called "the highest court in the land" because it hears appeals from state courts as well as federal courts. The Supreme Court has nine justices and begins its term on the first Monday in October of each year.
The Federal Courts of Appeal are the middle part of the pyramid. The Courts of Appeal -- also known as Circuit Courts -- are divided into twelve different regions or "circuits." Eleven of the twelve circuit courts handle cases from different states. For example, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia handles cases from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The twelfth circuit court is the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and is located in Washington. There is also a United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears certain specialized cases.
The Federal District Courts are the lowest part of the pyramid. There are 94 judicial districts across the country, including judicial districts in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.
Most of us are familiar with the Supreme Court. In addition to those nine Supremes, there are more than 900 judges with lifetime appointments to serve on lower federal courts! They hear thousands of times the number that the Supreme Court hears -- and most of the time it’s these lower courts that have the final say. Naturally, it's not easy to get selected for such an important job. Why Courts Matter outlines the steps:
The Consultation. If there is a vacancy on a federal court due to the retirement or death of a sitting judge, the White House consults with the senators who represent the state in which the vacancy will occur, often referred to as the “home state senators.”
The Vetting Process
Blue Slips. Once a nomination is made, the process moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which sends a “blue slip” to each home state Senator. Blue slips, letters printed on light blue paper, are used by the Committee to ask home state senators to approve Committee consideration of a nominee who would serve in their state.
Committee Hearing. The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in consultation with the ranking member, will schedule a committee hearing where members have an opportunity to question a nominee.
Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee votes: Following the hearing and answers to any written questions that have been submitted, a committee vote is scheduled. The first time a vote is scheduled, any member of the Senate Judiciary Committee can delay the vote until the committee’s next executive business meeting (usually one week, but sometimes much longer), without reason.
This is a now-routine, but unnecessary, slow down in the process. Once a nominee is voted favorably out of committee, with a majority vote, the nomination can be forwarded to the Senate floor for consideration by the entire Senate.
Floor Vote. Senate majority leader schedules a full vote in the U.S. Senate
The Senate majority leader must schedule the floor vote on a nominee. While the Majority Leader prioritizes the Senate’s agenda, most votes on nominations are scheduled by unanimous consent – meaning that all 100 senators agree to limit debate and allow for a vote. Without unanimous consent, there is an effective filibuster of a nominee, and the majority leader can only force a confirmation vote by filing cloture. Cloture is a time-consuming process that could consume days for each nomination. It requires 51, or a simple majority, of votes to end debate and proceed to a confirmation vote.
Cloture is a time-consuming process that could consume days for each nomination. It also requires a supermajority of 60 votes to end debate and proceed to a confirmation vote.
The Senate Votes to Confirm a Nominee. When the Senate votes on confirmation – scheduled either by unanimous consent or through successfully invoking cloture – nominees are confirmed by a simple majority of senators.
Lifetime Appointment Begins. The president signs the nominee’s commission, a large, engraved document to conclude the process.
Over the past several decades, a conservative-led campaign has eviscerated the ability of Americans to have their day in court. Victims of corporate malfeasance, medical malpractice, unsafe products, illegal working conditions, civil rights violations, and environmental pollution have seen their ability to hold perpetrators accountable undermined and the courtroom doors shut.
Access to Justice
Timely access to justice is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of our democracy, but the reality is somewhat different. Vetting can be slowed down at many points in the process -- or blocked altogether, as we saw with Merrick Garland.
But first there must be a nominee, and at present there are 135 judicial vacancies without nominees. Of these, 51 are considered emergencies due to the weight of caseload and/or length of time the seat has been vacant. The result is a backlog of cases that undermines our system of justice and makes it difficult for most Americans to have their cases heard in a timely manner.
Harrisburg resident James Fisher explains how the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals saved him from death row and created an important precedent.