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Op-ed: Senate should confirm Russell so Utahns can get justice they deserve

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

With the election over, there seems to be more uncertainty over the future of our government than there was before. However, one area of our government in which there should not be uncertainty is the federal judiciary.

Because of the Senate’s obstruction and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fully staff the Supreme Court, the court’s ability to be the final arbiter of the law has been jeopardized in 4-4 decisions and broader uncertainty. Donald Trump could choose to renominate Chief Judge Merrick Garland once he assumes the presidency, but it is almost certain that another more conservative judge will be nominated in his place. With that we will once again have a fully functioning Supreme Court, although it remains to be seen how such a court will impact jurisprudence in the years to come.

However, the Supreme Court vacancy is only the tip of the iceberg. Whereas the Supreme Court routinely takes less than 100 cases a year, the vast majority of cases are decided by appellate and district courts. These courts decide critical issues in cases touching on the future of our public lands, the environment, campaign finance reform, access to affordable healthcare, voting rights, LGBT rights, immigration, reproductive rights and election law, among many other issues that affect all of our lives.

And yet the Senate is shutting down these courts as well. More than 11 percent of the federal judiciary is vacant, compared to 3 percent during President George W. Bush’s final year in office. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, there are 116 current and future judicial vacancies nationwide, 54 of which have pending nominees. One of those nominees is Ronald G. Russell.

Russell was nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah by President Obama on Dec. 16, 2015.  During the hearing before the committee on April 20 of this year, Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced Russell as a “man with an outstanding resume” and “an upstanding servant of his community.” Not only has he led a distinguished career as an attorney at the prestigious Salt Lake City firm of Parr, Brown, Gee and Loveless, but he also served as the mayor of Centerville for two terms. As Hatch said, “Even in this challenging political environment, senators on both sides of the aisle recognized that Ron’s experience, reputation, and character make him a nominee everyone can support.”

Following Russell’s nomination, Hatch urged his colleagues to approve him “promptly” and the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to send the nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. However, this District Court seat in Utah has now been vacant for more than two years, and Russell is awaiting a final up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

Although they seem to be content with a “do-nothing Congress,” it is completely unacceptable that senators continue to make it impossible for the third branch of government to adequately function. We need a full bench in Utah so judges can have manageable caseloads and Utahns can receive the justice they deserve on the critical issues facing their lives.

Senators are returning to Washington now that the election is over, and they should immediately consider these pending nominees. Although they urged the Senate to take up the nomination before the election, we must make clear to Sens. Hatch and Mike Lee that we expect a vote during the lame duck session on Ronald Russell.

Utah cannot wait. We need senators to do their job now.

Chase Thomas is policy and advocacy counsel for Alliance for a Better Utah.

Read the Salt Lake Tribune article here

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