As the Obama administration attempts to fill open positions on federal courts, Republican Senators are doing everything in their power to block the nominations of Obama's three D.C. Circuit Court nominations. Last week, Republicans filibustered a vote for Patricia Millett, and they plan to do the same with Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins. While the Republican effort to block the nominees is generally just viewed as politics- an attempt to curtail "court-packing" by the Obama administration- the tendency of Senators and political analysts to paint nominee Pillard as a radical feminist demonstrate deeper implications of blocking Obama's female nominees (2/3 of the Circuit Court nominations). Obama's attempt to diversify the federal courts are now being resisted by Republicans, and fought heavily. Though all nominees are considered very qualified, it seems that such character "flaws" are being exploited to justify the politics behind Republican actions, as such Senators as Ted Cruz and Chuck Grassley have weighed in on Pillard's "controversial" views on reproductive rights.
Such a lack of support for nominees is unusual at this stage in a Presidency, and mechanisms to block nominees are usually seen during the last few months of a President's final term. Furthermore, the suggestion of court-packing actually misuses the term, which refers to a President's creation of positions on courts to fill spots. President Obama is constitutionally required to fill empty seats (though Republicans are arguing that it is unnecessary to currently fill the seats), and it is generally accepted that Presidents attempt to nominate judges within their own party for powerful positions- the D.C. Circuit Court being amongst the most powerful in the country. The resistance to the nominations may be moreso out of concern for the Circuit Court's power to review federal agency rules and decisions.
However, what is most interesting about the Republicans attempt to block these nominations is the question of rules and procedures that it raises. Some Democrats have suggested invoking the "nuclear option," which would change the Senate rules to strip Republicans of their filibuster power over nominees. This "nuclear option" is considered an arcane Senate rule, but allows the Senate to force votes on nominees with a simple majority for cloture, instead of the usual 60 votes. The majority leader, Harry Reid, could have the power to invoke this option, demonstrating the impact of agenda control by party leaders. Furthermore, if this option is opposed, it would take a majority to vote on opposing the "nuclear option," suggesting that the Democrats (assuming there would be no dissenters) could vote in a simple majority to invoke the nuclear option and proceed on the vote for the nomination.This filibuster reform was almost invoked over the summer, but was changed last minute when compromises were reached instead. Thus, it may be that the threat of this "nuclear option" would be enough to force Republican Senators to allow for a vote on the nominations. It seems, in fact, that this option is used more as a threat then as a legitimate method of ending a filibuster. That it would be used now demonstrates both the partisan divide that is crippling Congress's productivity, and the apparently very strong desire by Republicans to silence female politicians who are seen as more "extreme" or "feminist."