March 04, 2008

Specter & Conservative Leaders Plan Judges Battle

The Committee for Justice issued the following press release today:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 4, 2008
CONTACT: Curt Levey, (202) 270-7748, clevey@committeeforjustice.org

SPECTER & CONSERVATIVE LEADERS PLAN JUDGES BATTLE
Implications for Presidential Race Discussed
McConnell Laments Dems’ “Judicial Confirmation Brinksmanship”

WASHINGTON, DC – Monday afternoon, Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Arlen Specter (R - Pa.) convened a meeting of conservative leaders to gear up for a fight over confirmation of the President’s judicial nominees. Noting that the confirmation statistics cited by Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D - Vt.) painted a misleading picture of progress on nominees, Specter fired up the leaders by warning that “if things don’t change . . . the President’s court appointments . . . will be an historic low for a two-term President in modern times.” The implications of the looming judges fight for the presidential race were discussed. Then Sen. Specter took to the Senate floor, where he denounced the obstruction of judicial nominees and announced plans to introduce a protocol for the nonpartisan processing of both parties’ judicial nominees. GOP Leader Mitch McConnell followed with similar remarks on the floor.

At the meeting, Specter disclosed his February 29 letter to Sen. Leahy, in which he made one last plea to the committee chairman to avert a showdown and “work out an accommodation . . . without our respective caucuses coming to an impasse.” Specter asked Leahy to “work with me to establish a schedule for prompt consideration of all currently pending judicial nominees.” (emphasis added). However, Specter told the assembled leaders that, after making repeated, failed efforts to work with Chairman Leahy, a high-profile fight over judges seemed all but inevitable.

Monday’s meeting appeared to mark a turning point in what the letter calls the Senate’s “most bitter” controversy. A fight over judges has been brewing for weeks now, as GOP senators have become increasingly frustrated with Leahy’s obstruction of nominees. Sen. Specter had urged his colleagues to postpone any hardball tactics while he tried again to work things out with Leahy. But yesterday, “Specter indicated to the conservative leaders that he too had run out of patience and was ready to lead his colleagues into battle,” said Committee for Justice executive director Curt Levey, one of the participants in the meeting.

On the Senate floor, Specter called for the immediate adoption of a long-term bipartisan protocol establishing timetables for the expeditious processing of all judicial nominees, including deadlines for hearings, Judiciary Committee votes, and up-or-down votes by the full Senate. Specter reiterated the argument in his letter that, “given the uncertainty of who the next President will be, now would be a good time to change the confirmation process to guarantee prompt action on nominees.”

“Senate Democrats balked when a nonpartisan timetable was proposed during President Bush’s first term,” noted Curt Levey. “But given Democrats’ confidence about recapturing the White House and their talk about reducing partisanship, it’s difficult to see how they could object to Sen. Specter’s current proposal.” Levey noted that “debate over the proposal could quickly become an issue in the presidential campaign, since it’s greatest impact would be on the next president’s judicial picks. Barack Obama, who promises to move the country beyond partisan politics, would be hard pressed to explain why he can’t support the Specter proposal. And John McCain, a key member of the ‘Gang of 14’ deal, would also be expected to weigh in.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor after Specter to urge that his “Democratic colleagues resist the desire by some to drag us back into judicial confirmation brinksmanship.” McConnell noted that “many of these [judicial] nominees satisfy most or all of [Leahy’s] specific criteria for prompt consideration: they have strong-home state support, they fill judicial emergencies, and they have good or outstanding ABA ratings.” Nonetheless, McConnell said, “there have been no judicial confirmations so far this year, and there has been only one hearing on a circuit court nominee since September of last year.” In last year’s most contentious fight over a judicial nominee, both McConnell and Specter were instrumental in the successful confirmation of Fifth Circuit nominee Leslie Southwick.

Chairman Leahy has tried to counter the growing criticism of his stewardship of judicial nominations by pointing to the forty judges confirmed by the Senate in 2007. But as Sen. Specter explained, the numbers cited by Leahy are misleading because they count 13 confirmations of nominees who “were held over from the 109th Congress and required no significant work by the Committee.” The truth, Specter said, is that the pace of confirmations under Leahy is slower than under his predecessors.

“By comparing apples to oranges and conflating district court nominees with appeals court nominees, Sen. Leahy has attempted to camouflage the historic level of obstruction he is engaging in,” added Curt Levey. “But Leahy is playing a dangerous game in an election year, because the judges issue is always a winning one for the GOP. And, more than any other issue, it unites the various constituencies in the Republican party. Why do you think it’s only the GOP contenders for president who emphasized the issue?”

The Committee for Justice is a non-partisan, non-profit organization devoted to promoting constitutionalist judicial nominees and the rule of law.

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