For 200 years the Senate carefully considered the professional track record of any judge nominated for the federal bench. That changed four years ago when ranking Democrats decided to turn the Senate Judiciary Committee into their own personal meat grinder. Despite having nearly one hundred federal judgeships to fill, these Democrats resolved to torpedo most of President Bush?s nominations. Ostensibly, they refuse to acknowledge that Bush won the election and so refuse to give any serious consideration to the federal judges he nominates. Lurking beneath the rhetoric is nearly four decades of intense infighting over how to select candidates.
The two parties in the senate divide more or less along party lines when it comes to confirming judicial nominations. The partisan character of the process has become so vitriolic that respected and well-qualified nominees are now being tossed out because of sheer factionalism. A partisan blood oath, not reasoned and methodical consideration, now determines who rules over our federal courts.
The infighting nearly went nuclear with President Bush threatening to rewrite the entire nomination process. Under Bush?s proposed plan, nominees would be subject to a straight up or down majority vote, as opposed to the standard two thirds requirements. In effect, the plan would have banned filibusters of judicial nominations; a change that would have had profound implications with Supreme Court nominations lurking around the corner.
The so-called nuclear option was staved off with a Senate compromise last week. The temporary agreement by 14 US senators ensured the confirmation of three jurists who had been previously blocked by the Democratic filibuster. Priscilla Owen of Texas was subsequently confirmed to the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals by a 56-43 vote. The confirmation of William Pryor of Alabama and Janice Rogers Brown of California will follow.
You may recall that the Democrats had previously blocked the nomination of Justice Janice Rogers Brown for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Despite the fact that Brown was the first black woman to sit on California's Supreme Court, the Democrats assailed her through a series of reductive and racist smears. Senator Chuck Schumer led the way, accusing Justice Brown for voting against ''minorities'' and ''low-income'' people. Schumer made no mention of specific cases where Brown ruled against ?minorities? and ''low-income'' people who actually deserved to win. It was enough to insinuate racism. Ironically, Schumer was effectively criticizing Brown for treating the constitution as colorblind. Note to Schumer: wasn?t this one of the major goals of the civil rights movement?
A handful of Democrats in the Senate followed Schumer?s lead. Brown ??makes Clarence Thomas look like Thurgood Marshall,? sneered Rep Diane Watson (D-CA). A joint press release by the NAACP and People for the American Way called Justice Brown a ?far right dream judge.? And Hilary Shelton, director of Washington's chapter of the NAACP, said President Bush nominated Justice Brown solely ??to get some kind of credit because she is an African-American woman?.? The Black Commentator called Justice Brown a ?Jim Crow era judge, in natural blackface.?
Just like that, all of Judge Brown?s hard work?she rose up from a segregated Alabama community to achieve personal and professional success -- dissolved beneath the hurtful and reductive label of ?Uncle Tom.? This is no different than using the ?N-word? to sum up an individual.
Thankfully, Brown will get her lifetime appointment now. But the compromise agreement was only a temporary measure. With Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist expected to step down perhaps as soon as next month, the next Democratic filibuster is looming right around the corner. Look for the Democrats to resume their stall tactics then. At least one major implication is that the dearth of federal judges (one eight of all federal judgeships still remain to be filled) and impending vacancies on the Supreme Court will undermine the administration of justice in this country.