GOP Senators consider modifications to blue-slip practice

For a century, the U.S. Senate has followed an unwritten “blue-slip” practice, in which Senators are permitted to block federal district and circuit court nominees from their home states from advancing to a confirmation vote, simply by declining to endorse the nominees.  Viewed in the most positive light, the practice allows Senators to exercise informed discretion over the nominee’s fit with a local court and local constituency.  Viewed more cynically, the blue-slip procedure provides Senators with essentially unchecked power to block nominees for any reason, no matter how ideological, arbitrary, or mean-spirited.

Senate Republicans are now openly talking about modifying the practice, to extend blue-slip privileges only over district court nominees.  This means that a single Senator could not hold up confirmation hearings over individuals nominated to serve on the U.S. Courts of Appeal.  Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) explained: “I think there’s a difference between the blue-slip application at the district court level where the courts is contained wholly within a state as opposed to a circuit court which covers multiple states….  The idea that an individual senator could veto in effect a nominee at the circuit court level is really unprecedented and I think it needs to be carefully looked at.”

Federal courts present FY18 budget request to Congress

Judge Julia Gibbons, the Chair of the Judicial Conference’s Budget Committee, appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday to request $7.2 billion in funding for the federal courts for Fiscal Year 2018.  She was joined by James Duff, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.  The full testimony of both Judge Gibbons and Director Duff are available at the link.

 

Suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to run for U.S. Senate

Roy Moore, the Alabama judge best known for his position on placing the Ten Commandments inside state courthouses, abruptly resigned his position as Chief Justice yesterday in order to run for the United States Senate.  Moore’s resignation was essentially a technicality; he was suspended from his judgeship last year for a variety of ethics violations, and has not served on the state supreme court for months.

Moore is seeking the Senate seat currently held on an interim basis by former state attorney general Luther Strange.  Strange was appointed to the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions upon his confirmation as U.S. Attorney General.  In yet another twist, Strange was appointed by then-Governor Robert Bentley, who resigned in scandal just weeks ago.

Beyond the head-spinning number of scandals and vacancies, Moore’s decision to enter the race highlights a sometimes-overlooked aspect of judicial interdependence: many judges begin their careers as legislators, and many legislators begin their careers as judges.

Continue reading “Suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to run for U.S. Senate”

Grassley: expect another Supreme Court vacancy this summer

The Hill reports on Senator Charles Grassley’s statements to a local Iowa newspaper.  It is unclear whether there is anything more than conjecture to this prediction, but it does seem reasonably likely that there will be at least one more vacancy before January 20, 2021.  The real question is whether there will be a vacancy before the midterm elections next year, since a change in the composition of the Senate could impact both nomination and confirmation strategies.

Public interest in the Supreme Court is high, but knowledge is low. Should we worry?

The humdrum unanimity of Supreme Court cases is rarely conveyed to the public, even in passing.

CSPAN/PSB has released a new survey of more than 1000 likely voters, concerning their knowledge of and attitudes about the United States Supreme Court.  The results are not particularly encouraging for those who follow the Court closely.

Survey respondents reported very high interest in the Court generally: 90% of respondents agreed that “Supreme Court decisions have an impact on my everyday life as a citizen” and 82% indicated that the issue of Supreme Court appointments was important to their 2016 Presidential vote.  Sixty-five percent of respondents stated that they follow news stories about the Supreme Court “very often” or “somewhat often.”

But at the same time, actual familiarity with the Court and its members is middling at best.  Nearly 60% of survey respondents could not name a single Supreme Court Justice.  And while 71% of respondents said that they were following the recent news about President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, only 28% could actually identify that nominee by name.

Also significant were the latest numbers regarding the public’s perception of the Court: 62% of survey respondents agreed that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions demonstrate that the Justices effectively split into parties, similar to Republicans and Democrats in Congress.  By contrast, only 38% of respondents thought that recent decisions demonstrate that the Court acts in a serious and constitutionally sound manner.

Results like these tend to trouble court watchers, both in terms of the general lack of civic knowledge and with respect to the public’s apparent belief that the Court is primarily political body.  These trends do require attention.  But a closer inspection suggests that there is no need to panic — at least not yet. Continue reading “Public interest in the Supreme Court is high, but knowledge is low. Should we worry?”

Gorsuch hearing preview: A moment where state ties trump partisanship

Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch begin today with the introduction of the nominee by his home state senators, Michael Bennett and Cory Gardner of Colorado.  It is a nice bipartisan tradition for the home-state senators to introduce all federal judicial nominees, presumably dating back to a time when the rest of the Senate was not assumed to be familiar with a candidate.  While almost all post-Robert Bork Supreme Court hearings have been contentious at times — usually unnecessarily so — it is a nod to decorum that the Senate still begins every hearing with such a welcoming gesture.

Home-state bipartisanship in judicial selection is not just a matter of courtesy. Senators from many states have developed bipartisan screening committees to help them recommend qualified candidates for lower federal judgeships to the President.  These screening committees review the qualifications of those interested in judgeships on federal district courts and circuit courts of appeal, and pass the names along to the home state senators, who then pass along names to the President.  While the President has ultimate discretion in choosing a nominee for any Article III judgeship, the use of screening committees effectively pre-ratifies the candidate, and helps ensure a much smoother confirmation process.  The Supreme Court represents a special circumstance where screening committees are not used, but we can hope that both President Trump and the Senate will continue to rely on them where appropriate in considering lower court nominees.

We will be following the Gorsuch hearings this week, with commentary to follow on how the hearings reflect and impact the current relationship between Congress and the courts.