WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have begun fighting a proxy war using judicial nominees in an effort to stake out ground in the shadow of a looming Supreme Court fight.
Amy Klobuchar is among those on the left who have taken to the Senate floor to decry what she calls stalling tactics by those on the right, who in turn are holding up an appellate nominee as an example of exactly the kind of nominee who should be stalled at all costs.
“As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I have seen what’s going on here,” Klobuchar said. “We get these nominations through our committee and then they just vanish, into thin air.”
“Obviously they’ll put the Supreme Court nominees on a faster track,” said Al Franken, also a Judiciary Committee member, in an interview. “Right now, the judicial nominees that Obama has put forward, once they’re reported out of committee, are waiting twice as long as the Bush nominees did.”
Actually, it’s much longer than that. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said Obama’s nominees are waiting an average of 119 days between clearing committee and the Senate’s confirmation vote, while Bush appointees averaged less than a week.
Denny Chin, a district judge in New York who was nominated by Obama to serve on an appellate bench, had his nomination forwarded from the Judiciary Committee on a unanimous vote back in December. He still hasn’t come up for a vote on the Senate floor.
It’s cases like Chin’s that Democrats hope to highlight in the upcoming months, threatening to spend nights, weekends and holidays in a judicial confirmapalooza if they have to, trying to make the case that Republicans just want to filibuster everybody in an attempt to blunt that weapon before a Supreme Court fight.
Klobuchar said she saw from experience as a prosecutor the impact of not having enough judges, adding that the successful prosecution of everything from simple gun cases to high-profile white-collar crime requires judges with time to hear the cases.
“If we don’t have the judges to handle those cases, these criminals are going to be out there committing crimes. That’s what this is all about,” she said.
The Republicans have their poster child as well in Obama nominee Goodwin Liu, a University of California-Berkeley law professor nominated to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, against whom they’re outlining a case based on both politics and procedure that could be duplicated against a future Supreme Court nominee.
Republicans preparing their arguments
Senators seemed keenly aware of the stakes at a Friday hearing on Liu’s nomination.
Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Judiciary ranking member, said the hearing “takes on even greater significance in light of the impending Supreme Court vacancy,” while Delaware Democrat Ted Kaufman jokingly welcomed Liu “to the Judiciary Committee and the Supreme Court nomination process.”
Republicans took aim at Liu’s lack of judicial experience — he’s never been a judge — with critiques that could easily be used against half of President Obama’s reported Supreme Court shortlist, who have never been judges either.
They blasted his writings, saying some show support of liberal ideals, like affirmative action, gay marriage and the idea that government has a duty to provide certain social services, including access to health care, as a means of reparations.
Sessions said on “Meet the Press” last week that Republicans would give him or her a “fair hearing” where the eventual nominee will “have a chance to explain any criticisms that are raised.”
“But if a nominee is one that is so activist like Goodwin Liu that’s just been nominated — who’s written that, that the Constitution requires welfare and health care to individuals — if it’s somebody like that, clearly outside the mainstream, then I think every power should be utilized to protect the Constitution. We’ll not confirm somebody like that.”
While the political argument is aimed at forming a box around the word “mainstream,” which you’ll hear a lot going forward, the procedure argument is aimed at slowing things down.
Republicans have used his youth (Liu is 39) and the fact that he’s up for a lifetime appointment to bolster their case to move slowly. They’ve highlighted procedural missteps (Liu omitted a few supporting documents when returning his committee questionnaire) and said more time is needed to parse his speeches and papers, since he doesn’t have a judicial record to examine.
All that led Session to tell reporters late last week that he feels like Democrats are “rushing this nomination.”
Liu was nominated in late February, and his first informational committee hearing was Friday. Nearly a two-month lag — about the timeline Democrats hope to use in approving a Supreme Court nominee.