The Senate Judiciary Committee took an important step last week, endorsing Yellowstone County District Judge Susan Watters and Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris for open federal judgeships in the state.
Their nominations, submitted in May by President Barack Obama, now head to the full U.S. Senate for a confirmation vote.
We call on the Senate, with the continuing endorsements of U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, to approve these excellent judges expeditiously, an act that would return the state to its full complement of three federal judges and would quell an ongoing judicial emergency that has drawn on far too long.
Thankfully, there is reason to believe that the Senate will move these judges along smoothly once it takes up the matter. Carl Tobias, a former University of Montana law professor who now teaches at the University of Richmond in Virginia, told The Gazette that Watters and Morris received the Judiciary Committee’s approval without discussion, which he called “a strong sign” that neither judge’s record is likely to cause heartburn in the Senate.
That’s no surprise here in Montana. We’ve noted previously these judges’ sterling records and readiness for the posts awaiting them, and we’re heartened that the Judiciary Committee apparently sees them in the same light.
In an interview with The Gazette last week, Tobias also pointed out that a handful of appointees previously endorsed by the Judiciary Committee still await their Senate votes and are in the queue ahead of Watters and Morris. The Senate has been taking up these appointments at the pace of one or two a week. That being the case, Watters and Morris probably face a wait until late October or early November for their votes.
Those confirmations are badly needed. Two of Montana’s three federal judgeships are sitting empty, and that state of affairs has forced senior judges, with limited caseloads, to travel the state to keep dockets moving. The inefficiency has also drawn attorneys and other court personnel into that churn.
In a vast, sparsely populated state like Montana, one with Indian reservations, millions of federal acres and an active drug trade, the hardships are even more acute.
Baucus noted in July that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts had designated the Montana vacancies as “judicial emergencies.”
Until Watters and Morris are confirmed and in place in their new posts, that condition isn’t going to change. Given the contentious political issues of the day, gridlock in the Senate seems inevitable, if regrettable. The appointments of Watters and Morris are noncontroversial and in wide acclaim.
This is easy stuff for the Senate. Let’s get it done.