Political Notebook

U.S. Senate drags its feet on federal judicial nominations

U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill is the lone Fresno district judge.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill is the lone Fresno district judge.

It’s well known that Fresno’s federal judges are overworked and struggling under the weight of one of the nation’s largest caseloads.

The U.S. Senate, however, appears in no hurry to help.

Federal legislation that would approve more judges for California’s Eastern District, which includes courthouses in Fresno and Sacramento, is going nowhere. And there appears to be no hurry to approve U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii’s replacement.

Ishii retired and moved to senior status in October 2012. Dale A. Drozd, a U.S. magistrate judge in Sacramento, was nominated in January by President Barack Obama to replace Ishii. In June, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination.

And now he waits.

He’s not the only judge awaiting confirmation. So far this year, the Senate has confirmed just five judges, which puts it on track for its worst confirmation year since 1969, University of Richmond Law School Professor Carl Tobias said.

That year, Tobias added, was the worst year for federal judicial confirmations in modern U.S. history.

“It’s just outrageous, really,” he said. “The GOP (which controls the U.S. Senate) is doing as little as they have to this year. They’re just basically dragging their heels.”

U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill is the lone Fresno district judge. Ishii has taken “senior status,” which allows him to work in retirement, but he’s reduced his caseload by half.

“In light of the incredible need for judicial resources in the Eastern District of California, I must admit that I am at a total loss to understand the delay at the Senate level for confirmation,” O’Neill said. “While it affects negatively federal judges, it ultimately affects the rights and legitimate expectations of the members of the public that we serve.”

To get an idea how bad it is in Fresno and Sacramento, the non-partisan Judicial Conference of the United States has recommended that Congress double the number of judges in the Eastern District from the current six to 12.

The Senate is taking its August recess and isn’t due back in session until Sept. 8. Drozd is not first on the list to be considered by the full Senate. Given the pace of the Senate, Tobias said Drozd’s nomination could possibly languish into next year — more than three years after Ishii retired.

“I can’t be optimistic,” Tobias said. “Nothing’s going on, and it’s just all politics.”