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Pope Francis and Access to Justice

The record number of federal court judicial vacancies contradicts Pope Francis’ call for better governance and a more just society.

Painters work on a mural of Pope Francis on the side of a New York City building on August 28, 2015. (AP/Mark Lennihan)
Painters work on a mural of Pope Francis on the side of a New York City building on August 28, 2015. (AP/Mark Lennihan)

See also: Infographic: Divided Government Has Not Always Meant Slow Judicial Confirmations by Anisha Singh and Jake Faleschini

Pope Francis—leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and a global celebrity with fans from many faith traditions—is visiting the United States for the first time this month. He brings with him strong messages regarding many of the nation’s most pressing justice issues, including economic inequality, mass incarceration, and climate change.

Pope Francis has also addressed a variety of audiences about the need to renew civic institutions so that they recognize the dignity of all people. He has called for the Catholic Church to renew “her urgent appeal that the dignity and centrality of every individual always be safeguarded” in order to bring about justice, especially for those whose rights have been trampled. Pope Francis has asked those in leadership and with power to consider those individuals and groups whom the system may be excluding and to work for their inclusion. Furthermore, he has articulated a specific role for government in building a more just society. According to Pope Francis, “It is the responsibility of the state to safeguard and promote the common good of society. Based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, and fully committed to political dialogue and consensus building, [the state] plays a fundamental role, one which cannot be delegated, in working for the integral development of all.”

In order to effectively deliver justice in the United States, America’s courts must be fully staffed with judges who understand the importance of access to justice. In the federal judicial nomination and confirmation process, the president appoints federal judges with the advice and consent of the Senate. Even when the president and Senate leadership are of opposing political parties, this process traditionally has not been a matter of significant political gamesmanship. But in the past year, that has changed significantly. America is in the midst of a judicial vacancy crisis—a direct result of the worst judicial partisan obstruction since 1953.

As of now, there are 85 current and future federal judicial vacancies. Thirty-one of these seats are considered judicial emergencies, nearly triple the number of emergency vacancies since January. This has led to the largest backlog of federal criminal and civil cases in U.S. history, with some 330,000 civil cases currently pending. Wait times for federal cases are at an all-time high, meaning that millions of Americans are not getting their day in court.

To effectively address the current federal judiciary crisis, senators from both sides of the aisle must come together and put forth judicial nominees from their home states. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) must hold hearings to confirm those nominees. While the Senate has only confirmed six judges in 2015, a recent Center for American Progress graphic shows that “divided government has not always meant slow judicial confirmations.” Currently, 21 nominees are waiting for their hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and an additional 11 nominees are waiting to be confirmed by the Senate.

The pope’s first visit to the United States, just days away, reminds us of Pope Francis’ strong calls for reform. In his first apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” he wrote that politics, “though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.” Every day that judicial seats remain vacant is another day that the lives of families, crime victims, employees, consumers, and defendants remain on hold and that justice continues to be delayed. Right now, seeking the common good means that the U.S. Senate must make judicial nominations and confirmations a priority.

In the words of Pope Francis, “Let us pray for leaders, that they govern us well.” If elected leaders in the United States are serious about good governance for the American people, they can no longer neglect the federal judiciary.

Anisha Singh is the Campaign Manager for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. Claire Markham is the Outreach Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center.

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Anisha Singh

Senior Organizing Director

 (Claire Markham)

Claire Markham

Associate Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative