Politics & Policy

A Gop Breakthrough?

Republicans try to run over a Democratic roadblock on judges.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch has taken an aggressive new step in an effort to break through the obstruction of six Bush judicial nominees from Michigan. The nominees — four to the federal courts of appeals and two to the lower federal district courts — are opposed by Michigan Democratic senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow.

The two Democrats who returned negative “blue slips” for the nominees, indicating they would not allow the nominations to go forward.

In the past, the opposition of both home-state senators has often been enough to kill nominations, but in a letter to Levin and Stabenow Friday, Hatch announced that he will schedule hearings for the nominees despite their opposition.

Levin and Stabenow do not have any specific objections to the Michigan nominees. Instead, they returned the negative “blue slips” because they are angry that President Bush did not give in to their demand to renominate two Clinton appeals-court nominees from Michigan.

Those nominees, Helene White and Kathleen McCree Lewis, were never acted on by the Republican-controlled Senate. (One of them, White, has a personal connection to Levin; she is married to the senator’s cousin.)

When Levin and Stabenow made their demands in the first months of George W. Bush’s presidency, White House officials tried to consult and negotiate with them. It didn’t work, and after a few months, talks reached a dead end.

“Although I understand [Levin’s and Stabenow’s] desire to have the president renominate two of President Clinton’s candidates for the court of appeals…we believe it would be unfair to expect the president to do so,” White House counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote to Sen. Patrick Leahy, then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in August 2001.

“To my knowledge,” Gonzales continued, “before President Bush renominated Roger Gregory to the Fourth Circuit, no president had ever nominated to a court of appeals an individual previously nominated to the court of appeals by his predecessor from a different party. For any senator to insist that this extraordinary and historic act be repeated is simply not fair. Appointments to the federal courts of appeals are uniquely matters of presidential prerogative.”

In his Friday letter to Hatch and Stabenow, Hatch recounted the White House’s efforts to consult with the senators about the Michigan nominations. “While I have worked to ensure that all nominees are given their due consideration before the Senate, I have also defended senatorial power via the mechanism of the blue slip,” Hatch wrote. “By tradition, blue slips ensure that each home-state senator is given a chance to express their opinion on nominations, the effect of which is to force the White House to perform adequate consultation. The factual record over the past 26 months amply demonstrates that the White House has in fact engaged in sufficient consultation with you….You have nevertheless returned uniformly negative recommendations.”

“It’s an important step,” says one Republican of Hatch’s action. “The Democrats have been intransigent.”

In deciding to hold hearings for the nominees, Hatch said he gave serious consideration to a recent letter signed by nine Michigan members of the House of Representatives. Addressing Levin and Stabenow, the nine lawmakers asked that the senators drop their opposition to nominees from their home state.

“Keeping Michiganders off the bench is a disservice” to the state’s citizens, the lawmakers wrote.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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