In December 2015, President Barack Obama nominated Ronald Russell, who had been a dedicated public servant and private practitioner in Utah for many years, to a judicial vacancy on the District of Utah.
Russell was a highly qualified, moderate nominee whom Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee powerfully supported. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported Russell in May 2016 without dissent.
Nonetheless, Russell languished on the floor until Jan. 3, 2017, which resulted mainly from GOP leaders’ refusal to allow the nominee’s confirmation debate and vote. Because Ronald Russell was a talented, mainstream nominee and the District of Utah needs this opening filled, President Donald Trump should promptly renominate Russell, and the Senate must expeditiously approve him.
The district presently experiences one vacancy in five active judgeships. This means that the court lacks 20 percent of its active judicial contingent, which complicates endeavors to rapidly, economically and fairly decide cases. Resolving disputes without one-fifth of the judgeships authorized can impose greater pressure on the court’s jurists.
On Dec. 6, 2015, President Obama tapped Russell. Obama lauded his excellent legal career, expressing confidence that the nominee would “serve the American people with integrity and a steadfast commitment to justice.” The White House press release stated that Russell has been an attorney at the respected Parr Brown firm more than 30 years and served as the mayor of Centerville from 2006 to 2013.
Nevertheless, the Judiciary Committee failed to convene Russell’s hearing until April 20, 2016. Hatch and Lee introduced him at the session, praised Russell’s superb qualifications, and called for quick Senate confirmation. That hearing progressed well, and the members who posed questions appeared satisfied with Russell’s answers. On May 19, the committee approved him on a voice vote following minimal discussion and without controversy.
After May, Russell awaited a floor debate and vote. Senate GOP leaders claimed that they were restoring the Senate to “regular order.” However, Russell and many other excellent, moderate nominees waited months on debates and ballots. The Utah senators sought a prompt final vote, but Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Majority Leader, never scheduled it.
A few Democratic senators pursued unanimous consent to vote on many district nominees who needed final ballots, yet GOP members objected. Had Republicans followed regular order, Russell would have received a confirmation ballot, although the GOP refused to arrange that vote.
Russell’s renomination and confirmation can be achieved easily. Hatch and Lee should urge President Trump to promptly nominate Russell again, just as he recently renominated five other well qualified, mainstream Obama nominees, who had previously earned committee approval like Russell.
Ronald Russell is a fine, consensus nominee, who enjoys the Utah senators’ strong support and deserves appointment, while the district requires all of its active judges to deliver justice. Thus, President Trump should promptly renominate Russell, and the Senate must rapidly confirm him.
Carl Tobias is the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond.