Republicans haven’t completely closed the tap on the Senate’s pipeline for judicial nominees. While they vow to halt confirmation of any Supreme Court pick by President Obama, they say they won’t completely freeze out his district or circuit court nominees.
That’s consistent in the minds of senior GOP senators. There’s a distinction, they argue, between the lifetime appointments to the lower courts and to the Supreme Court.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Politico the Senate “will be processing” Obama’s nominees to federal judgeships at the circuit and district levels. Cornyn said “the fight is about [the Supreme Court], it’s not about nominations in general.”
That battle over whether the Senate will consider Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia has only escalated since his unexpected death Feb. 13.
Democrats say that with nearly 11 months left in the president’s term, the Senate should consider an Obama nominee now. Republicans argue that Scalia’s spot should remain open until after the nation elects a new president.
“It’s hypocritical for the Senate to do any business this year,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told The Daily Signal, “if their standard is that the last year of an elected official’s term is illegitimate.”
Instead, Democrats want the Senate to consider all of Obama’s judicial nominees, regardless of court level.
“We’d love to have some district court judges [confirmed],” Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters Thursday. “We’ve never tried to stop them. And we’ve not even complained that they’re putting through mostly Republican judges.”
More than two dozen judicial nominees already are under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel responsible for vetting all presidential nominations to federal courts. And last week, Obama nominated two more judges to serve on the District Court of South Carolina.
Across the aisle, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., continues to push the Judiciary Committee to move on two federal judges for district court spots in the Keystone State.
Once a separate debate, the business of confirming lower-level judicial nominees has become a sideshow to the ongoing drama over Scalia’s replacement.
As early as January, Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of The Heritage Foundation, called on the Senate to torpedo all judicial nominees in protest of what it considers Obama’s executive overreach.
That argument echoes one made earlier by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other lawmakers. Democrats counter that the process is already too political.
Though smothered after the death of Scalia, the issue of other Obama nominees for federal courts may take on new significance and return to the spotlight.
Republican leadership could accelerate hearings and confirmation votes for lower court nominees, a GOP Senate aide said. That would counter charges of obstructionism and show that the upper chamber’s still open for business.
Another Republican aide familiar with the process told The Daily Signal that Scalia’s death hasn’t significantly changed leadership’s strategy.
“Confirming these judges was always part of leadership’s plans,” the aide said.