Our Views: Bad politics of judgeships

Nominees deserve an up-or-down vote in the Judiciary Committee  and the full Senate,  in a timely manner.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter has been at it again.

Out of a number of nominations from around the country to the federal judiciary in April, one Louisiana nominee was stalled by the U.S. Senate. That was Shelly D. Dick, of Baton Rouge, nominated for a vacant federal district judgeship in Baton Rouge.

Vitter, a Republican and the state’s junior senator, stalled the nomination. The pure politics of the play was that if Republicans had won the White House, Vitter would have been able to nominate another person, presumably a Republican lawyer, for the seat. By tradition, the president nominates U.S. district judges at the recommendation of a U.S. senator of his party.

“I just thought so close to a federal election, we should have the election and abide by the results,” Vitter said. So the nominee he now says has a “good, solid legal background” can actually get a vote on her nomination.

It is an example not just of politics, and of senatorial ego, but a level of contempt for the judiciary that we hope Vitter did not learn at Harvard University or Tulane Law School.

We believe these kinds of political games represent the dysfunction of the Senate’s rules and also contribute to the erosion of the public’s faith in the judiciary.

The Senate’s use of “blue slips”, which senators from a state return to the Judiciary Committee, was once just an accounting device, a way to let the committee know that a nominee was not controversial to home-state senators. It was a way to save the committee’s time in scheduling hearings, so it would know that a controversy might ensue for a particular nominee.

The blue slip is now abused by senators of both parties as a way to block nominees who deserve an up-or-down vote on a nomination. Vitter is not the only abuser, but he does so frequently.

As Vitter should have absorbed in his education, the Senate is supposed to be a deliberative body, not a collection of 100 individual barons who rule on nominees through unconstitutional devices such as blue slips.

As we say, Vitter is not alone. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in 2007 used the same device to block a qualified nominee. Her reasoning was vague and was never put to the test of a hearing, which the nominee — then-U.S. Attorney David Dugas — deserved on the merits.

However, that’s the single case we know of that Landrieu has abused use of the blue slip. It’s becoming a habit with Vitter. In Dick’s case, he spurned a face-to-face meeting with the nominee before putting the hold on her nomination.

In Vitter’s mind, she is not a lawyer and potential federal judge, just another political appointment.

These kinds of political games are now applied to the appointments in the judiciary. At a time when the institutions of the country are called into question in all sorts of ways, surely federal judges are diminished in the public mind if they are treated as pure political markers.

Today’s system, as abused by Vitter, is also particularly unfair to the nominee. Someone must put a legal practice on hold, typically, to wait until the politics or the just plain slow processes of the Senate resolve the nomination.

Nominees deserve an up-or-down vote in the Judiciary Committee and the full Senate, in a timely manner. Anything else is unworthy of the Senate’s constitutional obligation to “advise and consent” to presidential appointments.