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The News Journal: Senators Appeal For Vote on Stark

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Delaying tactics could create crisis for US District Court in Del.

By Nicole Gaudiano

Delaware's senators pleaded with their colleagues on Thursday to confirm judicial nominee Leonard Stark before a second U.S. District Court vacancy in Delaware becomes effective today.

Tom Carper and Ted KAUFMAN joined seven other Democratic senators from Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and Maryland in blasting Republican blocks on judicial confirmations.

There are nearly 100 judicial vacancies across the country. More than 40 -- including one in Delaware -- are considered "judicial emergencies."

Stark is expected to win confirmation, but GOP objections have held up votes on his nomination and others for more than two and a half months. After District Judge Joseph J. Farnan Jr.'s last day today, the court will be left with just two of its four judges.

"My fear is when we find ourselves next week with two judges ... in our district court, justice will be delayed and justice will be denied," Carper said during a Senate floor speech.

He asked Republicans to "put themselves in our shoes and to see if they can't find it in their hearts" to give Stark and other nominees an up-or-down vote.

Democrats say President Barack Obama's District Court nominees have waited more than twice as long for confirmation votes -- after being favorably reported by the Judiciary Committee -- as President George W. Bush's nominees. KAUFMAN said the delays haven't served any "legitimate purpose," such as creating time to meet nominees, check their credentials or review their scholarship.

"This is delay for delay's sake," said KAUFMAN, a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the committee's ranking Republican, objected Thursday to a request from Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado to consider a list of several nominees, including Stark.

Sessions said some nominees are controversial and other "good nominees" frequently get tied up as Senate leaders negotiate floor time. He also blamed Obama for being slow to nominate judges.

Delaware attorney Jeff Martin called the federal legislative branch's interference with the judicial branch "a real tragedy."

"Having only three judges for so long has already had a profound impact on the court's case overload and I can't imagine what having two judges will do," he said.

Martin said Delaware's reputation of having a "rocket docket," meaning a complainant was certain to have a trial begin within a year, is a thing of the past. The delay affects the court's effectiveness.

"Our District Court has a national reputation for excellence, in particular in the area of patent law," he said. "Corporations have some discretion as to where they are going to file and I'm sure we're not getting all the cases we once got, which is a shame, because our very fine reputation was well-earned over the years."

Former Delaware Attorney General Dick Wier agreed.

"A speedy trial is a hallmark of the judicial system," he said. "We're already operating with huge delays and backlogs. It's not fair to the judges and it's not fair to the litigants. This could have a major impact on the administration of justice in Delaware, both civil and criminal."

If Sessions hadn't objected to Udall's request, the nominees would have been voted on later. Without the Senate's unanimous consent to vote, the nominations remain pending.

"We're going to treat nominees fairly," Sessions said, adding that he expects to vote for "more than 90 percent" of them.

Stark was nominated March 17 and won approval from the Judiciary Committee on April 22 after fielding friendly questions from just one lawmaker -- KAUFMAN, the only committee member to attend the hearing. Stark currently serves as a federal magistrate judge in Wilmington.

He holds three degrees from the University of Delaware and a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar.

If confirmed, he will fill a vacancy left by the departure of Judge Kent A. Jordan in December 2006 to the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. KAUFMAN noted in his floor speech that Sessions has called Stark a "fine nominee" that he would support.

Connolly blames VP Biden

Former U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly, a Republican, was nominated by Bush to replace Jordan, but the Senate never acted on the nomination.

Thursday night, Connolly blamed the vice president for the longtime vacancy on Delaware's federal bench.

"The truth of the matter is there is one person responsible for this and that is Joe Biden," Connolly said. "Despite my having a unanimous well-qualified ranking from the American Bar Association, he refused to allow me to have a hearing because he was upset with the fact that my office prosecuted three of his friends -- Mike Harkins, Sherry Freebery and Tom Gordon. Unfortunately, he has not seen fit to use his power to fill the vacancy to date. It's amazing that we have a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic vice president from Delaware and we can't get an exceptionally well-qualified candidate like Len Stark approved. That tells me that Mr. Biden is not very concerned about the state of justice in Delaware."

Ex-Delaware River & Bay Authority Executive Director Harkins pleaded guilty to federal fraud in March 2004 and served more than a year in prison. Ex-New Castle County Executive Gordon was charged in federal court with racketeering along with Freebery, his top aide. Gordon pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor tax charges and Freebery to felony bank fraud. Both received probation in 2007.

"The reason the seat is now vacant is because the superb jurist nominated by President Obama, Len Stark, is among dozens of judges awaiting action in the Senate due to the obstruction of Senate Republican leaders," Biden spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander said.

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