by Eleanor Levie
“Justice, justice shall you pursue” is a core religious obligation, so important that the word is repeated twice in that Torah passage from the book of Deuteronomy. So it was fitting that leaders from the National Council of Jewish Women were part of a select delegation from around the country that traveled to Washington, DC, on May 7 to address the current judicial vacancies crisis — a key barrier in the pursuit of justice in the US today.
And indeed, while in Washington, DC, we asked for justice twice: First, we urged President Obama, through Administration officials, to use the power of his bully pulpit to continue to raise the profile of this issue with the public and to accelerate the process of selecting new nominees to send to the Senate for confirmation. Second, we met with our senators to decry foot-dragging, filibuster threats, and unprecedented Republican obstruction to the President’s pending nominees. The delays that result prevent our federal courts in keeping up with rising caseloads. These delays are bad for business, they costs billions of dollars, and they force individuals to wait far too long for their day in court.
Remember, the Supreme Court hears only about 80 cases a year. The vast majority of decisions are made in the lower federal courts, the district courts and the circuit courts of appeal — decisions about health care, reproductive rights, marriage equality, the environment, discrimination, and consumer protections. These decisions affect our lives. The courts matter. Judges matter, especially those appointed to lifetime positions on the federal courts and the Supreme Court. The President has the privilege and responsibility of appointing judges, and, fortunately, this President shares our commitment to federal judges who respect our Constitutional rights, and whose diversity reflects our nation’s diversity.
The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, the Alliance for Justice, People for the American Way, and the Center for American Progress, joined NCJW in organizing the day’s policy briefings with the White House and coordinating the lobby visits that followed. I was honored to be invited, having formerly held the jobs of State Policy Advocate (SPA) for NCJW in Pennsylvania and Chair of the Pennsylvania judicial nominations coalition; I’m also a past member of the NCJW National Board of Directors. I was honored to have with me Christine Stone, my successor in all three roles; former NCJW Board Member Carol Bloch, Chair of the Nebraska Coalition for Constitutional Values; and Marie Smith from Cleveland Section, Chair of Ohio’s Coalition for Constitutional Values.
The dignitaries on the other side of the table were impressive as well. Attorney General Eric Holder was candid in expressing his extreme frustration that the numbers of judges confirmed in this Administration stack up so poorly to prior administrations’. Later, Christine Stone represented NCJW at a small, invitation-only meeting of select leaders with President Obama and Valerie Jarrett.
I’m no lawyer, and my sympathy lies with those seeking justice: the injured and the innocent. I have been involved in a federal court case, an inter-state suit that took years before restitution was paid, by which time everything went to attorneys’ fees. In another recent court case in Philadelphia, where I was the last victim of a brutal serial strangler of women, took nine months from crime to guilty plea, to sentencing — a long time for resolution, for getting back stolen goods withheld as evidence, for getting answers to my questions about the social system breakdowns that led my victimization. Both processes felt interminable to me, translating into long periods in which I was in agony, family finances were in jeopardy, and outside pressures strained my marriage. But I was lucky each time, as there was a judge in place (although in the latter situation, a judge became sick, retired, and was replaced). My point is this: I know how slowly the wheels of justice turn in the best of situations. But now, with more than 90 vacancies — many of them with emergency status, the process is far slower and far more costly. Worst of all, it sometimes means holding innocent people in prison for long periods of time. That is not justice.
Yes, courts matter. And constituents’ opinions matter to our senators. “Justice, justice thou shall pursue” speaks to all of us. Urge your senators to do their due diligence of “advise and consent”: to send names of fair and independent candidates to the President, and to swiftly vote them onto the federal bench.
Eleanor Levie is a past National Board member and Pennsylvania State Policy Advocate and is currently the Advocacy Chair for NCJW Greater Philadelphia Section.