Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An archaic Senate policy is being used by a shameless Republican minority to obstruct the will of the president — and the people he was elected to represent.
You’d be forgiven for thinking I was referring to the filibuster, which has been the Republicans’ most effective and least democratic method of thwarting the will of the majority.
But no, this is another, more obscure and arguably more ridiculous procedural weapon called a “blue slip.” First instituted in 1917, the blue slip process has allowed individual senators to effectively veto a nominee for a circuit court judgeship who hails from their own state. This privilege has been used sparingly by some Judiciary Committee chairmen and more regularly by others. But in recent months, it has been taken to the extreme.
A case in point is Jill Pryor, whom President Obama nominated to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit more than two years ago.
Pryor is a smart judge with 20 years of experience. The American Bar Association gave her a unanimous “well qualified” ranking. She has served on the board of the State Bar of Georgia and as president of the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers. Despite this, her nomination hasn’t even made it out of committee.
Why? Her home state is represented by two blood-red Republicans: Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. They have used their blue slips as brakes, leaving Pryor’s confirmation in limbo.
Like the filibuster, this weapon is rooted in tradition, not the Constitution; it can simply be ignored by the chair of the Judiciary Committee. During George W. Bush’s administration, for instance, then-Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch decided that a negative blue slip would not hold up a nominee’s confirmation proceedings.
But because of current Chairman Patrick Leahy’s puzzling adherence to arcane practice, his desire to show courtesy — unreciprocated, of course — to the minority party and President Obama’s unwillingness to put a stop to it, the blue slip process is alive and well. Worse, it’s being used as a weighted bargaining chip, giving two Republican senators more influence over the judicial nomination process than the president himself.
Obama made Chambliss and Isaakson an offer they couldn’t refuse: If they would stop blocking Pryor, Obama would allow them to pick three nominees to the U.S. district court — positions that come with a lifetime appointment.
Their first selection was unsurprising: They chose Michael Boggs, an anti-choice, anti-LGBT rights candidate with a spotty record on civil rights issues.
As a state legislator, Boggs sponsored a bill that created special “Choose Life” license plates, with proceeds going to “Pregnancy Resource Centers” that counsel women against abortions. He also sponsored a bill requiring a parent or guardian to accompany any minor seeking an abortion. He introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the basis of “good Christian values.” He refused to support a measure that would remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia state flag.
A Georgia peach, he is not.
Obama is ceding his constitutional authority to make judicial appointments for short-term gain, with long-term consequences that are anything but abstract. Should Boggs be confirmed, he will have a lifetime to impose his views.
Judgeships matter, as the president and Leahy know well. Is it too much to ask — is it anything to ask at all — that the president nominate judges who share his values? That is, after all, what Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did.
The president has already won reelection. His party still maintains control of the Senate. He — and we — know how little is likely to get done legislatively in the remaining years of his term. But the judiciary is where the president’s legacy can live on for generations to come. Why, then, would he allow such a conservative extremist to get the job?
Some of Obama’s most committed supporters, including some congressional Democrats, are rightly questioning his decision. A coalition including NARAL Pro-Choice America, Human Rights Campaign and the National Organization for Women has written to Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee, urging them to vote against Boggs, saying that he has “demonstrated a troubling lack of concern for individuals whose experience and personal history differ from his own.”
The president has made his deal, but Senate Democrats have no obligation to uphold it. And they shouldn’t. There is simply too much at stake and too little reason to back down now.