September 15, 2009

Russell Wheeler, visiting fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, predicts trouble for Obama's judicial nominees.

This Jeffrey Toobin piece in the latest New Yorker illustrates what I predict will be the fatal flaw of the Obama administration: this strange, intellectualized fixation with a non-partisan strategy that is in no way supported by the results on the ground - nor is it an appropriate response to the electorate, which overwhelmingly rejected Republican policies.

The president doesn't yet seem to understand that the continued opposition to his choices doesn't have anything to do with his choices. It's Republican obstructionism, plain and simple. (Although Orrin Hatch contends: "He started it!" Uh huh. Go take a nap, Orrin, you nasty old coot.)

The Obama Administration wanted to send a message with the President’s first nomination to a federal court. “There was a real conscious decision to use that first appointment to say, ‘This is a new way of doing things. This is a post-partisan choice,’ ” one White House official involved in the process told me. “Our strategy was to show that our judges could get Republican support.” So on March 17th President Obama nominated David Hamilton, the chief federal district-court judge in Indianapolis, to the Seventh Circuit court of appeals. Hamilton had been vetted with care. After fifteen years of service on the trial bench, he had won the highest rating from the American Bar Association; Richard Lugar, the senior senator from Indiana and a leading Republican, was supportive; and Hamilton’s status as a nephew of Lee Hamilton, a well-respected former local congressman, gave him deep connections. The hope was that Hamilton’s appointment would begin a profound and rapid change in the confirmation process and in the federal judiciary itself.

[...] “The unifying quality that we are looking for is excellence, but also diversity, and diversity in the broadest sense of the word,” another Administration official said. “We are looking for experiential diversity, not just race and gender. We want people who are not the usual suspects, not just judges and prosecutors but public defenders and lawyers in private practice.” Yet Hamilton and Sotomayor are the usual suspects—both sitting judges, who had already been confirmed by the Senate. Of Obama’s seven nominees to the circuit courts, six are federal district-court judges. The group includes Gerard Lynch, a former Columbia Law School professor and New York federal prosecutor, and Andre Davis, who was nominated to the Fourth Circuit by Bill Clinton. (At the time, Republicans blocked any vote on Davis.) Two of the seven are African-American; two are women; all but one are in their fifties. (None are openly gay.) The one non-judge is Jane Stranch, who has represented labor unions and other clients at a Nashville law firm and is nominated for the Sixth Circuit. They are conventional, qualified, and undramatic choices, who were named, at least in part, because they were seen as likely to be quickly confirmed.

But then, as the first White House official put it, “Hamilton blew up.” Conservatives seized on a 2005 case, in which Hamilton ruled to strike down the daily invocation at the Indiana legislature because its repeated references to Jesus Christ violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Hamilton had also ruled to invalidate a part of Indiana’s abortion law that required women to make two visits to a doctor before undergoing the procedure. In June, Hamilton was approved by the Judiciary Committee on a straight party-line vote, twelve to seven, but his nomination has not yet been brought to the Senate floor. Some Republicans have already vowed a filibuster. (Republican threats of extended debate on nominees can stop the Democratic majority from bringing any of them up for votes.)

“The reaction to Hamilton certainly has given people pause here,” the second White House official said. “If they are going to stop David Hamilton, then who won’t they stop?”

See what I mean? Why are they surprised? Why do they constantly split the difference on everything, watering down any meaningful differences? If I were making these decisions, I'd be pushing the most liberal judges I could find, and make the Republicans explain over and over why they don't want judges who rule in favor of working people. Why would you throw away that opportunity?

Republicans in the Senate have not allowed a vote on any of the other nominees, either. So far, the only Obama nominee who has been confirmed to a lifetime federal judgeship is Sotomayor. The stalemate provides a revealing glimpse of the environment in Washington. Obama advisers (and Democratic Senate sources) aver that all the nominees, even Hamilton, will be confirmed eventually, but contrary to the President’s early hope the struggle for his judges is likely to be long and contentious.

“The President did not set a good example when he was in the Senate,” Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican senator from Utah, told me, pointing to Obama’s votes against the confirmation of John G. Roberts, Jr., and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., to the Supreme Court. “You have to be a partisan ideologue not to support Roberts,” Hatch said. “There is a really big push on by partisan Republicans to use the same things that they did against us.” Hatch himself, who had voted for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and every other Supreme Court nominee in his Senate career, voted against Sotomayor. (The vote for her confirmation was sixty-eight to thirty-one.)

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