U.S. senator speaks frankly about the Senate

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Senator Chris Coons (Photo by Samuel Kim)

 “My hope is that with a new president and a new Congress, we will see a gradual return of folks who think that compromise is not only not a dirty word, but it’s what you get sent to Congress to do,” said Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) during a dean’s lecture held at Yale Law School on Oct. 15.

At the event, titled “The United States Senate: A Frank Conversation,” Coons spoke freely about the frustrations, successes, and hopes for the legislative body.

The Senator remarked that he was frustrated about the impeded progress in filling vacancies on the federal bench. He said the Obama administration has been “spectacularly unsuccessful” in filling the federal bench with its nominees for a variety of reasons, but all point to “Republican obstructions.” Coons justified his perspective by citing how “the number of vacancies there were two years and four years and now seven years in the Obama administration is at almost every point nearly double what it has been in the two previous Republican administrations.”

Furthermore, the Senator said that he and the other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have had “huge and difficult fights” over nominees for federal judgeships even at the district court level. “My very first successful law was to extend the terms of a dozen bankruptcy judges, and it took me an entire year to get a temporary extension for a small handful of bankruptcy judges right after the greatest wave of bankruptcy filings in American history.” 

Senate gridlock in filling the federal bench matters for two reasons, he said:

First, it can deter qualified judges from seeking positions on the federal bench in the first place. “When you’re a partner of a firm or when you’re running an organization, taking six months, a year, or a year and a half out of your professional career and life with an uncertain result, and facing a withering confirmation period for abuse on the [Senate] floor is something you’re not gonna put yourself forward for or go through if you see a Senate that is clearly incapable of confirming even the most qualified judges,” he said.

Second, he said, if these “huge and difficult fights” continue to erupt on the Senate floor, not only will there be less recruitment of qualified judges themselves, but also these vacancies could lead to federal courts being over-burdened by the number of cases they have to handle, with not enough judges to handle them. “We haven’t increased the federal judiciary in any meaningful way since 1994, and we have a crisis in a number of districts, like Delaware, which [has] the highest case burdened court in America,” Coons remarked.

Thus, “adding to the federal bench, confirming this administration’s nominees has been hugely challenging and frustrating,” said Coons, but despite these frustrations in the Senate, there have been successes as well — particularly in the area of immigration reform.

“Probably the most exciting three weeks I’ve had as a senator in five years, was immigration reform,” he said, when he took part in a “mark-up” on the judiciary committee, with over 130 amendments voted on, seven of them his. A mark-up is the process by which a U.S. congressional committee debates, amends, and rewrites proposed legislation. Partnering with Marco Rubio, Coons introduced a piece of legislation that built on the I Have a Dream Foundation and created a new scholarship program for low-income areas that made it onto the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 and became law. This amendment calls for a pilot program within the U.S. Department of Education to award grants to support innovative and comprehensive partnerships that assist low-income students, including those with an immigrant background, in preparation for a college education.

Coons concluded his lecture with  a look at the area of criminal justice reform. He began on a grim note, pointing out that the United States, at this moment, is the world’s “biggest jailer.” Coons, who serves on the appropriations committee and subcommittee responsible for the Department of Justice, said that the Federal Bureau of Prisons spends more than every other federal law enforcement agency (such as the FBI, ATF, DEA, etc.) combined. “We are spending less on those agencies than we are on keeping people in jail,” said the Senator, “and the outcomes are not particularly positive either.” Coons told the audience that “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, was the first book he read as a senator that “literally brought him to tears” and motivated him to become more active in criminal justice reform.

Coons, along with some of his colleagues, have taken action, he said. “Just in the last two weeks we’ve managed to get a big bi-partisan criminal justice reform bill on the agenda and scheduled for mark-up on the Judiciary Committee.”

He said he’s hopeful that Republicans and Democrats will work across the aisle to pass legislation on this key issue, noting that “folks like John Cornyn and Mike Lee,” both conservative Republicans, are collaborating with “folks like Sheldon Whitehouse and Dick Durbin,” who are both progressive Democrats, to fight recidivism and reduce sentences. “[This] bill doesn’t fix every problem … but it has a real shot at being marked-up in committee, making it to the floor, and becoming law.”

In conclusion, the Senator said, “Why am I closing with [positive progress on criminal justice reform]? Because I want to say something hopeful and positive about the Senate of the United States!”

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