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Politico Gets Story on Obama Judicial Nominations Backwards

April 9, 2014

Ezra Klein launched his new Vox venture on Monday with a piece titled, "How Politics Makes Us Stupid." Looking at some recent research suggesting that "individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values," Klein concluded, "People weren't reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right."
On Friday, Politico offered a case in point with an article titled, "Obama now outpacing George W. Bush on judges." Motivated perhaps by a desire to show that Republican obstruction of President Obama's judicial nominees wasn't unusual and therefore Senate Democrats' decision to deploy the "nuclear option" wasn't necessary, the National Review ("Obama outpaces Bush on judicial nominations"), the Wall Street Journal ("Obama picks up pace on judicial picks, tally surpasses George W. Bush's") and even the Washington Post quickly ("Obama overtakes George W. Bush on judges confirmed") quickly followed suit.
But if you went around parroting those headlines, you'd look pretty stupid, indeed. As the same data show, President Bush's choices for the federal bench were confirmed at a rate 9 percentage points higher (88 to 79 percent) than Barack Obama's:

Over the course of his presidency so far, Obama has nominated 301 judges and gotten 237 confirmed. By this point in his presidency, Bush had nominated 267 judges and had 234 of them confirmed.
As of April 4, Obama has gotten 44 circuit court judges and 191 district court judges confirmed. As of April 4, 2006, Bush had 43 circuit court and 189 district court judges confirmed.

An alarming number of judicial vacancies had plagued the Obama administration throughout his first term. Part of that was Obama's own fault. As Dylan Matthews documented in July 2013, President Obama lagged in selecting new appointees to the federal bench. But even with that caveat, Obama's picks faced unprecedented GOP obstruction that derailed their nominations at record rates. After one year in office, Obama saw only 43 percent of his judicial selections confirmed, compared to 79 percent for George W. Bush. After two years, Obama's figure improved to 58 percent, still far behind Presidents George W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Reagan and Carter who had 77 percent, 90 percent, 96 percent, 98 percent, and 97 percent confirmed respectively. By the end of 2012, Obama's appeal court picks actually enjoyed a higher confirmation rate (71 to 67 percent) than Bush's. But among district court nominees, Obama still trailed.
So, the real story about staffing the federal judiciary is this. Thanks in part to a massive effort by his chief of staff Denis McDonough and counsel Kathy Ruemmler to reprioritize judicial nominations for his second term, Barack Obama has begun to make headway in filling judicial vacancies Chief Justice John Roberts called a "crisis." But the biggest factor was breaking through the Republican logjam, an advance made possible only by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to "go nuclear" and end the judicial filibuster for all seats but the Supreme Court.
There are many reasons why politics is making us stupid. But you don't have to buy Ezra Klein's argument to see that Politico isn't helping.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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