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Dem. Lobbyist Battles Gridlock In Confirmations

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

This week, the Senate approved three of President Obama's judicial nominees. But as the November election draws near, those judges may be among the last to get through a divided Congress. The White House says there's a crisis in the courts with nearly one in 10 federal judgeships vacant. But Republicans say most of the problem rests with President Obama, who's been slow to nominate candidates.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports it will take more than rhetoric to break the logjam.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Russell Wheeler studies the federal judiciary at the Brookings Institution. He says he can't see many more judge confirmations on the horizon before November, unlike past election years.

DR. RUSSELL WHEELER: You look back, for example, to 2004, which is similar to 2012 - a president running for re-election with majority of the Senate - Bush had around a 90 percent confirmation rate for district judges. I don't see any way Obama's going to get to that.

JOHNSON: That worries liberal advocates. They visited the White House and Capitol Hill this week to drum up support for 19 of Mr. Obama's nominees who are waiting for a Senate vote. But they're not just relying on the bully pulpit.

A new group called the Fair Judiciary Political Action Committee is beginning to put its money where its mouth is. Board member Judith Lichtman.

JUDITH LICHTMAN: There's something profoundly wrong with a political system that ties itself up in knots and can't work. And the whole idea of the Fair Judiciary PAC is to unpack that dysfunction.

JOHNSON: The political action committee, or PAC, is the brainchild of Democratic lobbyist Robert Raben.

ROBERT RABEN: The amount of money that the National Rifle Association, the Chamber of Commerce and related entities put into judicial battles at the federal level, and even more so at the state level, is off the charts.

JOHNSON: By contrast, His PAC doesn't have much money in its bank account. But Raben says it's intended to bundle donations from lawyers all over the country, not write big checks on its own. Raben says he lost a critical ally in 2009 with the loss of Massachusetts lion Ted Kennedy.

RABEN: With the death of Senator Kennedy, we have a real challenge. We have to cultivate and support a generation of senators who will stick with this fight, week in and week out. The Article 3 courts, the federal courts, they're lifetime tenures, they're not going away.

JOHNSON: His PAC has already given modest amounts to two senators: Al Franken of Minnesota and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Curt Levey leads the Committee for Justice, a group that fights for conservative judge nominees. Levey said his group used to have its own PAC, but its donations and ad buys were just a drop in the bucket.

CURT LEVEY: We'd spend at most maybe 50 or 100,000 at a shot, and I never really felt like it made enough of an impact to be worth that money.

JOHNSON: So he gave up the PAC. Now, Levey says he focuses his lower cost pitch to newcomers before they're even elected to the Senate. And Levey says it's just not the case that Republicans are responsible for injecting politics into the judge debate.

LEVEY: Obviously, I have my biases. But I think if you want to look at why judicial nominations have become very politicized, the left started it. I mean, the right has certainly jumped in enthusiastically. But the original fights, Bork and Thomas, those were coming from the left.

JOHNSON: But Raben of the new PAC says he's tired of those old fights.

RABEN: The strategy of talking about how mean the right is, is a failing and uninteresting strategy. Those of us who work on and care about a fair judiciary are trying very hard to come together with different strategies, different tactics that will move us through.

JOHNSON: He says building a political infrastructure for progressive candidates could take years. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.