April 03, 2008

Today’s Dramatic Showdown over Judges

This morning’s meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee was dominated by a dramatic showdown over Chairman Patrick Leahy’s refusal to schedule hearings for most of the President’s U.S. Court of Appeals nominees. The showdown came on the heels of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal editorial describing Sen. Arlen Specter’s “plans ‘to close the Senate down’ … to prod Democrats to [move] President Bush's appeals-court nominees.”

This morning’s dust-up over judges raged for more than 30 minutes and clearly got under Sen. Leahy’s skin. The Chairman lurched from being defensive to trying to change the subject, but Specter, the ranking Republican, insisted that all 8 of the GOP senators present be allowed to address the obstruction of Bush’s judicial nominees.

One of the most memorable moments came when Sen. Tom Coburn pressed Leahy about when he would allow a hearing for Fourth Circuit nominee Judge Robert Conrad. Conrad meets Leahy’s requirement for home state senator support and is needed to fill a vacancy declared a judicial emergency. Leahy refused to answer Coburn, instead accusing Judge Conrad of making "anti-Catholic comments." Coburn responded that Leahy’s charges were all the more reason to schedule a hearing during which Conrad could be questioned.

The dramatic confrontation bore immediate fruit, as Fifth Circuit nominee Catharina Haynes was voted out of committee. Leahy had been expected to comply with People for the American Way’s demand, in a March 31 letter, that the Committee “not proceed” with her nomination.

Perhaps the most ominous words came from Sen. Sam Brownback when he said "I think we all know where this is headed" – an obvious reference to the bitter and prolonged Senate showdown and shutdown over judges that only Sen. Leahy can head off. Earlier in the week, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell warned that “Republicans will be forced to consider other options” if the obstruction of judicial nominees continues.

Which brings us back to yesterday’s Wall Street Journal editorial, which described Sen. Specter’s plan for “a series of procedural stalls that would make it next to impossible for the Senate to get anything done.” The Journal noted the potential impact of the judges showdown on the presidential and Senate races:
“Mr. Specter's plan … has the advantage of getting the issue of judicial confirmations back in front of the public in an election year. It also offers Senator John McCain an opportunity to show some leadership on an issue popular both with conservatives and independents. … As for Barack Obama, this would be a chance to show his ‘post-partisan’ campaign riffs are more than rhetoric.”
The Journal also addressed the nomination of Peter Keisler, who has not been allowed a vote in the Judiciary Committee in the 20 months since his hearing:
“Among those waiting for a vote is Peter Keisler, Mr. Bush's highly regarded nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. … He is widely seen as Supreme Court material, presumably the reason Mr. Leahy hopes his nomination will go the way of Miguel Estrada, a legal star blocked by a Democratic filibuster in Mr. Bush's first term.”
The comparison to Miguel Estrada is an interesting one. Estrada was blocked not only because he is “Supreme Court material,” but also because he is Hispanic. Democrats fear the nomination of a conservative Hispanic to the Supreme Court, because blocking a Hispanic nominee would anger a core Democratic constituency. Is the fact that Keisler is Jewish similarly contributing to his obstruction by Democrats? There is no way to know. But it’s worth noting that, of the nine appeals court nominees currently being obstructed, three are Jewish.

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