A lifetime appointment to the federal bench is now selling for $700,000. At least that was the cost for Rhode Island judicial nominee Jack McConnell, who has donated that sum of money to Democrats in the two decades before President Obama tapped him for federal district court.
McConnell faces a Senate confirmation vote as early as today, setting the stage for a high-stakes showdown that could open the floodgates for a series of other controversial nominees such as Goodwin Liu, Edward Chen and Louis B. Butler Jr.
Obama’s selection of McConnell was met with widespread disappointment. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for the first time in its 99-year history, announced its opposition to a district court nominee. The American Bar Association — the “gold standard” for liberals — gave McConnell a mediocre rating. And the pro-life Family Research Council isn’t thrilled with his past leadership of Planned Parenthood in Rhode Island.
Now he faces the ultimate test — a vote on the Senate floor.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) has led efforts to block his confirmation, but might be thwarted by fellow Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who supported McConnell in committee, could provide cover for a handful of moderates to give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) the votes he needs to overcome a filibuster.
What makes McConnell so controversial? Aside from his history of political donations, he has faced questions about a controversial case against paint companies, including inconsistent answers to the Senate Judiciary Committee related to his role in the lawsuit.
McConnell’s involvement with the nine-year case — supported by then-state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (now a U.S. senator) — is central to the anti-business label pinned on him. The state’s high court rejected the argument that companies could be held liable for lead paint even if the state couldn’t prove they manufactured the product.
Then there is McConnell’s role in tobacco litigation, which made him a millionaire and continues to enrich him. According to financial disclosure forms, McConnell stands to earn at least $2.5 million per year from the tobacco settlement — money that could raise conflict-of-interest questions for a federal judge.
But these issues alone aren’t the only strikes against McConnell. His nomination is viewed as a reward for years of political donations to Democrats from him and his wife — an amount that approaches $700,000, according to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
“I would not argue that partisan political activity is disqualifying on its own,” Grassley said at McConnell’s hearing. “My concern is that Mr. McConnell is so steeped in political activity and ideology that it will be impossible for him to be an impartial jurist — even if he earnestly believes that he can.”
Just in 2008 alone, McConnell and his wife gave more than $160,000 in political donations. By comparison, the Providence Journal reported, 68 other Obama judicial nominees averaged $3,371 in donations to political candidates over nearly 20 years.
McConnell’s donations padded the campaign coffers of Rhode Island’s two senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse. He gave $8,800 to Reed in 2008, $8,400 to Whitehouse in 2006, and another $3,500 to Whitehouse’s PAC.
Meanwhile, McConnell’s firm, the South Carolina-based Motley Rice, gave more than $7,000 to Lindsey Graham’s campaign. He remains the only Republican to publicly declare his support for the nominee.
Now, with the clock ticking toward a Senate floor vote, all eyes are on the South Carolinian to see how many Republicans will follow his lead.