This weekend, Chief Justice John Roberts continued a tradition begun by his predecessor, William Rehnquist, of ushering in the new year with his annual report on the state of the federal judiciary. Rehnquist himself once explained to his future successor that it’s "difficult to get people to focus on the needs of the Judiciary and January 1 was historically a slow news day—a day on which the concerns of the courts just might get noticed."
Sadly, Roberts also had to renew another tradition begun by his equally conservative predecessor—speaking out for the first time against a mounting vacancy crisis that is slowly hollowing out the halls of justice. At the beginning of 1998, when Senate conservatives were systematically blocking President Bill Clinton’s judicial nominees, Rehnquist rightly put the interests of justice ahead of his own politics, warning in his annual report that "vacancies cannot remain at such high levels indefinitely without eroding the quality of justice."
Twelve years later, the judiciary’s vacancy crisis is far worse than any that Rehnquist presided over. One in 10 federal judgeships was vacant when Rehnquist slammed his fellow conservatives in 1998. Today it is one in nine. Rehnquist renewed his call for faster confirmations in 2002 when 60 judgeships were vacant. That number is 96 today. These skyrocketing vacancies moved Roberts to speak out in this year’s report about the "urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem" of widespread judicial vacancies.
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