Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger

Reporter

Erika Eichelberger is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The NationThe Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. 

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Charts: Look At How Badly Obama Lags on Judicial Appointments

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 10:02 AM EDT

Last week, President Obama withdrew his judicial nominee for the powerful DC Circuit Court of Appeals—which hasn't had a nominee confirmed since 2006—because Republicans threatened to filibuster her. This high-profile battle is just the tip of the iceberg. Because of Republican obstructionism, the Obama administration's lackadaisical pace of nominations, and problems with the Senate confirmation process, more federal judgeships are staying vacant nationwide under this president than under President Bush, and Obama's nominees are taking longer to get confirmed.

During Obama's first term, the number of appeals court vacancies rose from 14 to 17. During Bush’s first term, by contrast, appeals court vacancies dropped from 27 to 18. Because Obama has been slower to nominate than Bush or Clinton, the average number of days from the opening of a seat to a nomination increased by 44 percent between Bush's and Obama's first terms.

This graph, by the data visualization shop Remapping Debate, shows the average number of vacancies per year, starting in 2001 (scroll to view all years, and hover over for details):

When the president finally does nominate someone, the Senate is generally reluctant to confirm her. Obama has 15 judicial nominees waiting for Senate floor votes right now. Overall, his judicial nominees wait an average of 116 days on the Senate floor for a vote—three times longer than Bush’s average judicial nominee wait time. When the 112th Congress ended in December, the Senate had approved 175 of Obama's judges. By contrast, Bush had 206 judges approved in his first term, and President Clinton had 204.

The figure below, also by Remapping Debate, compares Bush and Obama's first terms, showing the average number of days between vacancy and nomination, and the number of days nominees were pending before the Senate.

Why is the GOP so obstinate on confirmations? Senate Republicans may be giving Democrats a little payback. "Republicans don’t think Bush’s nominees were treated fairly," Russell Wheeler, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, which has tracked the phenomenon, told Bloomberg News on Wednesday.

Confirmation of a nominee to the DC circuit court, which is one step below the Supreme Court, is particularly important for Obama's second term because the court handles all disputes related to regulations and executive actions. "With legislative priorities gridlocked in Congress, the president’s best hope for advancing his agenda is through executive action, and that runs through the D.C. Circuit," Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, told the Washington Post Tuesday.

Right now that court is conservative-dominated, with four Republican and three Democratic appointees, and four vacancies (twice as many as any other court of appeals). This configuration didn't work out so well in the Obama's first term. The DC circuit court blocked EPA air pollution rules and put a hold on cases related to workers' rights.

Of the DC circuit confirmation, Kendall says "There are few things more vital on the president’s second-term agenda."

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Look at This Drone Deaths Interactive

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 9:33 AM EDT

Pitch Interactive, a California-based data visualization shop, has created a beautiful, if somewhat controversial, visualization of every attack by the US and coalition forces in Pakistan since 2004. It doesn't fit on the blog, so we created a full-width page for it. You can look at it here.

Senate Agrees "Too Big To Jail" Should Die

| Mon Mar. 25, 2013 11:26 AM EDT

In a largely symbolic vote early Saturday morning, the Senate agreed that badly behaving financial institutions should not be "too big to jail," or so large that the government is afraid to prosecute them for fear of damaging the economy.

After 1,448 days without a budget, the Senate finally passed one Saturday morning. The process entailed a 13-hour voting session, called a vote-a-rama, in which lawmakers filed over 500 amendments, and voted on 70. Amendment 696 was Sen. Jeff Merkley's (D-Ore.), which would officially warn the Department of Justice that "too big to jail" is unacceptable and recommend prosecution when a crime is committed. Most of the amendments are more political posturing than anything else, because it's pretty unlikely the Senate's budget will be merged with the radically different House budget. Still, some of the add-ons, like Merkley's, are important because they point toward legislation that might not be far off.

In recent years, major US financial institutions have gotten away with book-cooking, fraud, terrorist financing, and money laundering, often without much more than a wrist-slapping. Last year, for example, the Justice Department declined to prosecute HSBC for years-long violations of money-laundering laws, slapping it with a fine instead. Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, admitted that the size of banks causes this kind of impunity:

I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy. And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large.

At a hearing on bank money laundering earlier this month, a treasury official told senators that federal prosecutors had consulted with Treasury over the potential economic consequences of prosecuting HSBC. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was not happy. "If you're caught with an ounce of cocaine, you're going to go to jail," she said. "But if you launder nearly a billion dollars for international cartels and violate sanctions you pay a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed a night."

Merkley's amendment would create a reserve fund to facilitate the criminal prosecution of financial institutions that break the law, no matter how big they are. Although the amendment will most likely not become law, it does indicate that lawmakers are fed up.

"Under our American system of justice—where Lady Justice is blindfolded—there should never be a prosecution-free zone," Merkley posted on his website after the vote. "But that is what our Department of Justice created...Too big to jail is wrong under our Constitution that promises equality under the law and we must end it."

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