Address Important Court Vacancies

Sweeping judicial precedents are not set solely by the U.S. Supreme Court. Within the various regions of the country are U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal that also interpret the law of the land for the states within their boundaries, subject only to being overruled by the Supreme Court.

Federal circuit courts are exceedingly important, then — but the one serving West Virginia is substantially understaffed. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va., is supposed to have 15 judges to cover our state, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina. Because of unfilled vacancies, it actually must conduct business with just 11 judges. No other circuit has that many vacancies.

According to a report by The Associated Press, the problem isn’t that President Bush has not attempted to fill the vacancies. He had nominated two people to address the three vacancies that existed earlier this year — but in December, Bush withdrew his nominations because liberal Democrats in the Senate objected to them.

The process of filling federal judgeships can be an intensely political one, sometimes with more attention paid to a nominee’s political party than to his fitness to sit on the bench.

Fortunately, two senators from Virginia — Republican John Warner and Democrat Jim Webb — have recognized that something needs to be done about the 4th Circuit vacancies. Reportedly, the two have recommended a list of five potential nominees for the court. The nonpartisan attitude demonstrated by Webb and Warner is in refreshing contrast to that which, in the past, often has made the process of filling judicial vacancies a time consuming fiasco.

We don’t know the names of the five people suggested by Warner and Webb. But we encourage the White House to give them serious consideration and, if they are qualified, to nominate four of them for the 4th Circuit vacancies. Or, if someone in the White House has better ideas, others should be nominated. One way or another, the court — important to our state as well as in issues of national concern, needs to be made whole.