As president, one of Barack Obama's most important tasks is making appointments to the federal courts.
The Senate has a role to play too. They are to "advise and consent." If a judicial appointee is deemed unqualified, a majority of the Senate can vote him or her down.
Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Senate performed its role. Sotomayor, who had a long record of judicial service, now sits on the nation's top bench.
But the Supreme Court, while it gets a lot of attention, is just one facet of our federal court system. The lower courts are important too. Most cases, after all, never make it to the Supreme Court. (The high court hears fewer than 2 percent of all the cases appealed to it.)
How are Obama and the Senate doing with the lower courts? Not so well. The Washington Post reports today that there are 90 vacancies in the federal court system, and Obama has forwarded nominees for just 23.
Furthermore, the Senate is dragging its feet on those already nominated. Obama's first choice for the federal appeals courts, David Hamilton of Indiana, was nominated in March and has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has yet to receive a vote in the full Senate.
What's the hold-up? The Religious Right and its right-wing Senate allies don't like the fact that Hamilton, as a lower court judge, issued an opinion striking down sectarian invocations in the Indiana House of Representatives. They also dislike an abortion-related ruling he issued.
No one argues that Hamilton is unqualified. He is a distinguished jurist, a graduate of Yale Law School and a Fulbright Scholar. He has served on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana for 15 years.
Opposition to Hamilton is driven by ideology. Some Religious Right groups and activists don't like Hamilton's rulings and have urged senators to use procedural ploys to slow his nomination.
Ironically, these same organizations protested loudly when Democrats were supposedly holding up judicial nominees during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Our country is ill-served when there are vacancies on the federal bench. The courts face a backlog already, and a lack of judges only exacerbates the problem. Obama won the election; he gets to name the judges. That's the way the system works.
Obama needs to step up the pace of qualified nominees, and the Senate needs to start confirming them.