Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee On the Nominations of Debra Brown and Gregory Woods

Today, we are voting on the nominations of Debra Brown and Gregory Woods to fill vacancies on the District Courts of Mississippi and New York.  If confirmed, Ms. Brown would be the first African American woman to serve as a Federal judge in Mississippi.  I am proud that together we will reach a landmark moment in diversity on the Federal bench, and I commend President Obama, Senator Wicker, and Senator Cochran for their important efforts.

These nominations come at a trying time for the Federal courts.  We have more than 90 judicial vacancies, and 37 of these vacancies have been designated as emergency vacancies due to high caseloads by the non-partisan Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.  While it is a sign of progress that we will vote to confirm two additional judges today, it is essential that the Senate move faster to confirm those judges that the Federal judiciary so urgently needs. 

Last week, when debating whether we would be allowed to have an up or down vote on the nomination of Patricia Millett to the D.C. Circuit, there was a lot of talk by Senate Republicans that Senate Democrats should be concerned with filling judicial emergency vacancies, rather than the D.C. Circuit, which they claim does not need more judges.  We all know that their arguments about the D.C. Circuit have nothing to do with caseload and everything to do with the political party of the president nominating.  As one of only three members of my caucus who has served in the Senate since the 1970, and having served both in the majority and the minority, I have cautioned against changing the rules. However, if the filibuster rules continue to be abused by my Republican colleagues I will have no option but to reconsider my longstanding opposition to such a change.

I also find the Senate Republicans’ newfound concern about judicial emergency vacancies particularly rich with irony given their role in preventing this President from filling many of those vacancies.  In fact, nearly half of the emergency vacancies are empty because of Republican obstruction. First, there are 15 judicial nominees pending before the full Senate including 7 nominees who would fill judicial emergency vacancies if the Republicans would allow us to vote on them today:  Elizabeth A. Wolford, to be United States District Judge for the Western District of New York; Brian Morris, to be United States District Judge for the District of Montana; Susan P. Watters, to be United States District Judge for the District of Montana; Brian J. Davis, to be United States District Judge for the Middle District of Florida; James Donato, to be United States District Judge for the Northern District of California; Beth Labson Freeman, to be United States District Judge for the Northern District of California; and Pedro A. Delgado Hernandez, to be United States District Judge for the District of Puerto Rico.  Instead, Republicans continue to force many of these nominees to wait needlessly on the Senate floor.

Moreover, Republicans are obstructing nominees from filling these judicial emergency vacancies in other ways that the public is less aware.  Much of these delay tactics occur earlier in the process, and include  the refusal to return blue slips and the refusal to provide recommendations to the President for district court nominees from their state that they would be willing to support.  In fact, there are judicial emergency vacancies that have persisted for years because certain Republican Senators refuse to either return their blue slip or provide a recommendation to the President.  So I take these hollow accusations about focusing on judicial emergency vacancies from Senate Republicans with a grain of salt.  This is advice I will heed once Senate Republicans demonstrate through their actions that they care about filling vacancies.

It is good news for New York and Mississippi that the Senate will vote today to confirm two excellent nominees.  Yet, I believe that the Senate should have acted sooner on these nominations.  These nominees are uncontroversial, and have remained on the Senate Floor for far too long.  The unnecessary and irresponsible government shutdown did serious harm to our Federal courts, which was already operating on fumes as a result of sequestration and the high levels of judicial vacancies. 

Gregory Woods is nominated to a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Since 2012, Mr. Woods has served as the General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Energy since 2012.  He previously served for three years as Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Transportation, and in private practice for eleven years at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, first as an associate, and later as a partner.  Following law school, he worked for four years as a trial attorney in the Commercial Litigation Branch of the Civil Division at the Department of Justice.  Mr. Woods earned his B.A., with honors, from Williams College, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.  He has the support of both of his home state Senators, Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand.  The Judiciary Committee approved his nomination by voice vote more than three months ago.

Debra Brown is nominated to a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.  Since 2012, Debra Brown has been a shareholder in the law firm Wise Carter Child & Caraway.  She previously worked at the law firm Phelps Dunbar LLP for over fifteen years, first as an associate, then as a partner, and finally as a counsel.  While earning a reputation as an excellent litigator, she stayed involved in her community, providing pro bono legal services through the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project and serving on the Board of Directors for the Mississippi Center for Justice.  Ms. Brown earned her B.A. from Mississippi State University, and her J.D. from University of Mississippi School of Law.  Her nomination has the support of both her home state Senators, Senator Wicker and Senator Cochran.  The Judiciary Committee approved her nomination by voice vote more than three months ago.

To me, the path forward is simple.  Nominees such as the ones being voted on today and the other uncontroversial, qualified nominees currently pending before the full Senate should be confirmed immediately so that they can get to work for the American people.  Now that this shutdown has ended, we must work together to make sure that our Federal judiciary, a co-equal and independent branch of government, has the resources it needs to be working at full strength and with a full complement of judges.  Only then will we have a judicial system worthy of the American people.

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