Edward Chen

Justice Ginsburg Mourns Breakdown of Judicial Nominations Process

At a speech yesterday at Southern Methodist University, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg touched upon the depressing state of our nation's judicial nominations process. As reported by the Associated Press:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Monday that the confirmation process has become much more partisan and that she probably never would have made it to the high court under the current climate.

"I wish we could wave a magic wand and go back to the days when the process was bipartisan," Ginsburg told the crowd of about 2,000 as she spoke as part of a lecture series for Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.

While most of us cannot wave such a magic wand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can. With one word he could stop many of the GOP obstruction tactics against President Obama's judicial nominees. It was just such obstruction that prevented the Senate from voting to confirm twenty pending nominees before it left town several weeks ago, 17 of whom got through committee with no recorded opposition.

As ThinkProgress reported, Justice Ginsburg also noted the hostility felt by some senators toward the ACLU: "Today, my ACLU connection would probably disqualify me."

Unfortunately, she may be right. Late last year, Senator Jeff Sessions – then the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee – railed against judicial nominees who had worked with or been a member of the ACLU, specifically targeting William Martinez, Edward Chen, Goodwin Liu, Jack McConnell, Amy Totenberg, Robert Wilkins, and Michael Simon. He concluded his tirade with the following warning to President Obama:

I do believe the administration needs to understand that this is going to be a more contentious matter if we keep seeing the ACLU chromosome as part of this process.

Republican hostility to the ACLU – and to the constitutional rights it regularly protects – is extremely disturbing. At the same time, the blocking of even unopposed nominees suggests that the GOP's main problems with President Obama's nominees is that they are President Obama's nominees.

PFAW

ACLU DNA, Lead Paint, and the Judges who Made it Through GOP Obstruction

As we like to remind anyone who will listen, the current GOP senate has been shameless in its enthusiasm for obstructing judicial nominees just for the sake of obstruction. For instance, a PFAW memo on August 2 reported that of 24 nominees then waiting for confirmation votes, 21 had been voted through the Senate Judiciary Committee with no recorded opposition. Instead of sending through at least the unopposed nominees in a voice vote and moving on with its business, the Senate decided to keep these potential jurists off the bench for as long as possible – despite the pressing problem of unfilled judicial seats leading to slowed down justice. Ultimately, 4 of those nominees were confirmed by the Senate before it left for its August recess, and 20 remain waiting. (The Washington Post this morning lamented that such “gamesmanship is not only frustrating but also destructive”)

This sort of thing is a clear example of obstruction for obstruction’s sake. But what about the nominees who do face some GOP opposition? Last week, The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen took an in-depth look at some of President Obama’s nominees who were ultimately confirmed by the Senate, but who received more than 25 “no” votes. The reason? Most were opposed because of a record fighting for civil liberties or against big corporations. Here are a few of Cohen’s examples:

7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Hamilton (Votes 59-39). Even though his local Federalist Society endorsed this nephew of former Congressional leader Lee Hamilton, Senate Republicans mostly didn't because, as a trial judge, Hamilton had issued this 2005 ruling which had infuriated the religious right. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Judge Hamilton had ruled that Indiana's legislative prayer before each session could no longer be "sectarian" and regularly invoke the name of Jesus Christ.


Northern District of Ohio Judge Benita Y. Pearson (Votes 56-39). The first black female federal jurist in Ohio almost didn't get the gig. The precise reasons why are unclear. The People for the American Way suggested that she was a member of an animal rights group and thus earned the wrath of those in the cattle industries -- although 39 "no" votes is quite a lot of beef to have against a pioneering jurist.


District of Colorado Judge William J. Martinez
(Votes 58-37). By contrast, it is not hard to understand why this Mexico-born nominee roused so much Republican opposition on the floor of the Senate. Before he was nominated, Martinez advised the Americans with Civil Liberties Union and was a lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (just like Clarence Thomas before him, only Justice Thomas' EEOC experience evidently was a boon for his nomination). Of nominee Martinez, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said: "It seems that if you've got the ACLU DNA you've got a pretty good leg up to being nominated by this president."


District of Rhode Island Judge John J. McConnell (Votes 50-44). It's also fairly clear why Judge McConnell almost didn't make it onto the bench. Senate Republicans didn't like him because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn't like him because, as a lawyer, McConnell had successfully sued Big Tobacco and fought for those harmed by lead paint. Evidently that's five Republican votes more serious in the Senate than ticking off Big Beef.


Northern District of California Judge Edward M. Chen
(Votes 56-42). Like Judge Martinez, Edward Chen evidently was touched with the "ACLU gene," which rendered him objectionable to Senate Republicans. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), whose state's Asian population is nearly three times lower than the American average, voted against Chen because he thought the well-respected former magistrate judge employed the "empathy standard" of judging.


District of Oregon Judge Michael H. Simon
(Votes 64-35). Harvard educated? Check. Prior government experience with the Justice Department? Check. So why 35 "no" votes? Because Simon had worked for the ACLU. The seat he took on the federal bench, reported the Oregonian, had been vacant for 664 days, two months short of two years. How would you like to have been a litigant in Oregon during that time?


All of these nominees were ultimately confirmed – but not after plenty of stalling and debate over the value of “ACLU DNA” or of holding big corporations accountable for their actions. When we talk about the many nominees who are unopposed yet unaccountably stalled, it’s important to remember that the few nominees who do face GOP opposition don’t always face that opposition for the most convincing of reasons.
 

PFAW

Sessions Puts His Lab Coat Back On

Back in September, we wrote about Sen. Jeff Sessions’ discovery of what he called the “ACLU chromosome”—according to the senator, a common genetic defect that disqualifies bearers from the federal judiciary.

Well, Dr. Sessions is back at it. TPM has this video of Sessions ranting yesterday about the supposed prevalence of the “ACLU chromosome” in President Obama’s judicial nominees:

As Sen. Mark Udall later pointed out on the Senate floor, it’s unlikely that Sen. Sessions would have a similar reaction to a “Federalist Society chromosome”. While a few of President Obama’s nominees have had a history working with the ACLU—for instance, Edward Chen of California who worked to prevent discrimination against Asian Americans—President Bush made a point of packing the courts with judges who belonged to the far-right Federalist Society.

It’s absurd arguments like Sessions’ that are keeping qualified, well-respected nominees like Chen from even receiving an up or down vote in the Senate. While reports say that the Senate GOP has finally agreed to vote on 19 judicial nominees who they have been stalling despite little or no opposition to their confirmations, four nominees, including Chen, will be left out to dry without even a vote.

And, for the record, the ACLU had this to say about Sessions’ rant:

"Senator Sessions' reference to 'ACLU DNA' in President Obama's judicial nominees should be greeted as a welcome discovery by all Americans, regardless of party. For 90 years, the ACLU has defended the rights enshrined in the Constitution for everyone, regardless of their political beliefs. While not everyone agrees with us on every issue, Americans have come to rely on the ACLU for its unyielding dedication to principle."

"There is a long record of highly respected ACLU-affiliated lawyers who have been appointed to the federal bench, including luminaries such as Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. All have demonstrated their dedication to the Bill of Rights in important decisions supporting freedom of speech, the right to due process and gender and racial equality. There are also dozens of highly regarded district court and appellate court judges who have served or serve now on federal benches throughout the nation. Their ACLU background has helped them bring to the judicial system a steadfast commitment to constitutional values and an understanding of the critical role that the judiciary plays in safeguarding them."

"If you ask us, ACLU chromosomes make for a pretty remarkable gene pool," she added.


 

PFAW

White House: Judicial Nominations are a Priority for Lame Duck

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday that pushing through stalled judicial nominations would be one of the president’s priorities in the last days of the lame duck session of Congress.

People For released a memo last week detailing why it’s important for the Senate to confirm all 38 stalled nominees immediately:

As the end of the 111th Congress approaches, 38 judicial nominees approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee are waiting for a vote on the Senate floor. Many of the nominees have been waiting for months, while a few have been waiting for almost a year.

Of these nominees:

  • 21 (55%) have been nominated to fill emergency slots.
  • 29(76%) are women or people of color.
  • 29 (76%) came out of committee without opposition and an additional 3 came out of committee with significant bipartisan support.

There’s no question that a majority of senators will vote to confirm every one of these nominees, and it’s unlikely that any of them would fail to garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles that the GOP has deployed on virtually every function the Senate has performed since President Obama took office. (This is doubly true considering that many members of the GOP have publicly asserted that filibusters of judicial nominees aren’t just wrong, but actually unconstitutional.)

Now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems to be offering Democrats a devil’s bargain: confirm a number of the nominees that don’t have any opposition at all, but send the rest back to the White House at the end of the Congress. The group being sent back to the White House will almost certainly include four of the eminently qualified – and mainstream -- nominees who have had the misfortune of being tagged as “controversial” by Republicans:

  • Rhode Island nominee John McConnell, who has been opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce for his willingness to represent victims of lead paint poisoning.
  • Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, whose work as a judge irked business interests so much, they spent $1 million to prevent his reelection.
  • U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen, who has been attacked for his work fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • And then, of course, Ninth Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu. As the New York Times editorial page has pointed out, the GOP’s resistance to Liu centers mainly around the fear that he’s so qualified, he might end up on the Supreme Court.

Senator Reid and his colleagues should call Senator McConnell’s bluff and start holding cloture votes on these nominees. The process will take time, but adding time to the calendar is entirely within the Democratic leadership’s purview. By confirming McConnell, Butler, Chen, and Liu, Senators can make clear that they will fight the unprecedented and enormously damaging obstruction of highly qualified judicial nominees. Walking away from these nominees delivers the confirmation process to the GOP: they’ll effectively block confirmable jurists without even having to go on record with their obstruction.

President Bush worked hard to pack the courts with far-right, Federalist Society judges. Confirming Obama’s picks will not only fill vacancies causing judicial emergencies and add much-needed diversity to the federal bench, it will prevent the federal bench from continuing to be dominated by Bush’s far-right appointments.

 

PFAW

Former Bush Lawyer: Stop Partisan Bickering and Confirm Liu

The Blog of the Legal Times is reporting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning to call Senate Republicans on their obstruction of judicial nominees and break the gridlock that has kept four of these nominees pending, in some cases for over a year. Reid will attempt to stop the Republican filibuster of Ninth Circuit nominees Goodwin Liu and Edward Chen, Rhode Island District Court nominee John McConnell, and Wisconsin District nominee Louis Butler. 

This is a critical moment for these nominees, who despite support from their home-state senators and endorsements across the ideological spectrum, have for various reasons been branded as “too extreme” by obstructionist Republicans in the Senate. McConnell has been up against an expensive lobbying campaign from the Chamber of Commerce, which objects to his work as a public interest lawyer representing victims of lead paint poisoning. Butler has been up against business interests who don’t think he was friendly enough to them when he was on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Chen was accused by Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee of having an apparently disqualifying “ACLU chromosome.”

Liu’s nomination has been the subject of the most partisan squabbling. Liu’s main obstacle, it seems, has been his own brilliance: some on the Right worry that if he makes it on to the bench, he could eventually become a Supreme Court nominee. But Liu’s nomination is backed by legal luminaries from across the ideological spectrum, including former Bush White House lawyer Richard Painter, who today wrote another plea for the Senate GOP to break the judicial gridlock and at least take a vote on Liu’s nomination:

In any event, nominees who should not be controversial, including Goodwin Liu (I have made previous posts here on his nomination), are described as radical activists, the same tactic that advocacy groups deployed to mischaracterize many of President Bush’s nominees.

Public opinion of Members of Congress (both parties) these days is lower, far lower, than it was in the days when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge used just the right term to describe what he saw going on when Senators filibustered legislation. Those of us who care about the future of the judiciary should make it clear that the delay must stop.

This does not mean the Senators should vote "yes". They can vote "no". But they should vote.

Specific nominations aside, the federal judicial system in general has taken a drubbing under the Senate GOP’s refusal to confirm nominees. A new report from the Alliance for Justice has found that the number of vacancies in the federal judiciary has nearly doubled since President Obama took office, and that the number of open seats designated as “judicial emergencies” has risen from 20 to 50, affecting 30 states.

Confirmation votes will become much more difficult next year, with Democrats hanging on to a much slimmer majority in the Senate. Now’s the time to push through the nominees whom the GOP has been the most eager to obstruct.
 

PFAW

“The ACLU Chromosome” and other judicial disqualifiers

Politico today outlines an emerging trend in judicial obstruction. While partisan battles over judicial nominees have in past years focused on the occasional appellate court judge or Supreme Court justice, these days even nominees to lower-profile district courts are fair game for partisan obstructionism. Among other problems, this doesn’t make it easy to keep a well-functioning, fully staffed federal court system:

According to data collected by Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution and analyzed by POLITICO, Obama’s lower-court nominees have experienced an unusually low rate of confirmation and long periods of delay, especially after the Senate Judiciary Committee has referred the nomination for a confirmation vote by the full Senate. Sixty-four percent of the district court nominees Obama submitted to the Senate before May 2010 have been confirmed — a number dwarfed by the 91 percent confirmation rate for Bush’s district court nominees for the same period.

But analysts say the grindingly slow pace in the Senate, especially on district court nominations, will have serious consequences.

Apart from the burden of a heavier case load for current judges and big delays across the federal judicial system, Wheeler, a judicial selection scholar at Brookings, says that potential nominees for district courts may think twice before offering themselves up for a federal nomination if the process of confirmation continues to be both unpredictable and long.

"I think it means first that vacancies are going to persist for longer than they should. There’s just not the judge power that there should be," Wheeler said. And private lawyers who are not already judges may hesitate to put their practices on hold during the confirmation process, he added, because "you can’t be certain that you’ll get confirmed" for even a district judgeship, an entry-level position to the federal bench.

Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has been at the lead of the GOP’s obstruction of every judicial nominee who can possibly be obstructed. He told Politico that he simply wants to make sure every new federal judges passes his litmus test: "If they’re not committed to the law, they shouldn’t be a judge, in my opinion."

Sounds fair. But the problem is, of course, that Sessions’ definition of “committed to the law” is something more like “committed to the way Jeff Sessions sees the law.”

In a meeting yesterday to vote on eight judicial nominees-- five of whom were going through the Judiciary Committee for the second or third time after Senate Republicans refused to vote on their nominations--Sessions rallied his troops against Edward Chen, nominated to serve as a district court judge in California. Chen is a widely respected magistrate judge who spent years fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union. But Sessions smelled a rat: Chen, he said, has “the ACLU chromosome.”

The phrase really illuminates what Sessions and his cohort mean when they talk about finding judges “committed to the law” or who won’t stray from “the plain words of statutes or the Constitution.” It isn’t about an “objective” reading of the Constitution. It’s about appointing judges who will find ways to protect powerful interests like Exxon, BP, and the Chamber of Commerce, while denying legal protections to working people, women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and gays and lesbians.

(Sessions himself was nominated for a judgeship in 1986, but was rejected by a bipartisan majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee for his history of not-so-ACLU-like activity).

Sessions’ warns that “Democrats hold federal judiciary as the great engine of the left,” but the reality is far from that. Besides having the most conservative Supreme Court in decades, nearly 40% of all current federal judges were appointed by George W. Bush, who made a point of recruiting judges with stellar right-wing credentials.

No matter how much disarray it causes in the federal courts, it’s in the interest of Sessions and the Right Wing to keep the number of judicial seats President Obama fills to a minimum. If they succeed, they keep their conservative, pro-corporate courts, tainted as little as possible by the sinister “ACLU chromosome.”
 

PFAW

The GOP Displays Effective Use of Taxpayer Dollars

The Senate Judiciary Committee this morning voted to approve seven federal judicial nominees. Four of these nominees are Judiciary Committee pros by now—they’ve already been approved by the committee, but were blocked by Senate Republicans, and had to start the nomination process all over again. Two are going through the process for the third time.

So what high ground is the GOP standing on in their months long blocking of these four nominees and insistence on holding the same debate multiple times?

Well, there are the objections to Rhode Island nominee John McConnell, who had the gall to represent victims of lead paint poisoning, and be proud of it.

Not to mention the record of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, whose work as a judge irked business interests so much, they spent $1 million to stop his reelection.

Then there’s the outrage against U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen for his work fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union.

And then, of course, there’s the all-out battle against Ninth Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu. As the New York Times editorial page points out today, the GOP’s resistance to Liu centers mainly around the fear that he’s so qualified, he might end up on the Supreme Court.

And these are just the nominees to which the GOP has been able to articulate some sort of objection. There are now 23 nominees waiting for votes on the Senate floor--17 of them made it through the Judiciary Committee without the objection of a single Republican.

Witness the trademark efficiency of the Party of No.
 

PFAW

Unprecedented Obstruction: Exhibit "A"

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse just made a forceful presentation at the Senate Judiciary Committee business meeting about the unprecedented obstruction currently being waged by Republicans against judicial nominees. The statistics are powerful: from 1949, when Senate rules were changed to provide for cloture votes on nominees, until 2009, only three cloture motions were filed on District Court nominees, and one of those was withdrawn.

By contrast, three District Court nominees were voted out of Committee for a second (John McConnell) or third (Edward Chen, Louis Butler) time today after Republicans refused to permit votes on their nominations and forced their re-nomination by the President--Exhibit "A" of this unprecedented obstruction.

PFAW

Dawn Johnsen and the GOP Obstruction Game

As you may have seen reported, in a perfect exclamation point to the obstruction we've seen all year, when the Senate adjourned last week, the Republicans objected to what is ordinarily a routine request to waive Senate rules and permit pending nominations to remain in the Senate confirmation pipeline. Without what's called "unanimous consent," under Senate rules, pending nominations must be returned to the President, who then has to re-nominate in the next session. In what has become a far too typical exercise by the "Just Say No" party, Republicans objected to three DOJ nominees who have been on the Senate’s calendar awaiting consideration for months: Dawn Johnsen, for the Office of Legal Counsel; Chris Schroeder for the Office of Legal Policy; and Mary Smith, for the Tax Division. They also objected to two pending federal District Court nominees (Edward Chen, for a seat on the Northern District of California and Louis B. Butler for a seat on the Western District of Wisconsin) and to Craig Becker for reappointment as a member of the National Labor Relations Board. 

This is just more of the same unconscionable obstruction by the Republicans that is interfering with the President's ability to assemble the team he needs to serve the American public. And the obstruction is pointless. All the Republicans are doing is slowing down the inevitable -- but as we've seen with any number of issues, anything they can do to gum up the works they treat as a victory. So much for the Republicans' past claims about how elections matter and about the deference owed to the President in filling out his cabinet.

Right now, three of eleven Assistant Attorney General slots in the Justice Department -- more than one quarter of the key leadership slots at DOJ -- are filled by individuals in interim "acting" capacities because the Republicans are playing politics and tying up the nominees. It's nearly one year since Dawn Johnsen's nomination was announced; her nomination has been pending on the Senate calendar for nine months.

We fully expect the President and the Senate to work through this latest round of irresponsible Republican obstruction. The nominees will be sent back to the Senate; the Judiciary Committee will consider them promptly; they'll go back on the Senate Calendar; and, unless cooler and more responsible heads prevail, Senator Reid, unfortunately, will have to file cloture on each and every one of them to put an end to the obstruction. These are exceptionally talented nominees -- and the American people will be well-served when they are finally confirmed. 

PFAW

Have they no decency?

McCarthyism is back. Let's call it what it is.
 
We are seeing one witch hunt after another led by right-wing opinion leaders, media outlets, organizations and even members of Congress. They pursue personal smear campaigns, grasping at straws to create "guilt by association" and challenge the legitimacy, allegiances and patriotism of their opponents.
 
Remember the Bush-era attacks on the patriotism of anyone who questioned the administration's policies? Those look tame in comparison. Now, with Democrats in power, the insinuation is that the president, his advisers and his political allies are actively trying to destroy America from within and, despite being elected by the people, are inherently unfit to lead.
 
We stand up to right-wing bullies every day, and we want to help all courageous Americans do the same. People For the American Way is ready to confront this new McCarthyism head-on. In the coming days and weeks we will be exposing the Right's tactics and rhetoric and creating tools to help activists combat them. We will educate Americans about the insidious nature of what we see happening in this country and impress upon Americans the urgency of stopping it.
 
In a 1954 Senate hearing, Army head counsel Joseph Welch famously put Senator Joseph McCarthy in his place, saying, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
 
In that great moment in American history, Welch called McCarthy out for his "cruelty" and "recklessness." The crowd at the hearing erupted in applause and, in that instant, McCarthy's power started its decline.
 
It's time for all of us to ask that same question -- Have you no sense of decency? -- of those on the Right who have resurrected McCarthy's tactics.
 
Radical Right activists ("Birthers," "Tea Baggers"), paranoid anti-government extremists and irresponsible media personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh (and media outlets like FOX News) -- in many cases with the backing of entrenched right-wing and corporate interest groups -- have simultaneously raised the ominous, not to mention incompatible, specters of socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism and infiltration by foreign elements. This has created a backdrop of suspicion in which McCarthy-like intimidation, guilt by association and character assassination thrive.
 
In the last two weeks alone, we've seen:

  • 53 right-wing members of Congress sign a letter to the President requesting that he fire Kevin Jennings who heads the office at the Department of Education tasked with keeping schools safe, for "promoting homosexuality and pushing a pro-homosexual agenda in America's schools." Jennings, a gay man and founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), has been the target of right-wing groups like Family Research Council for months. He was also the victim of false accusations that he broke the law in counseling an underage student when he was a teacher - and the congressional letter included that allegation even though the office of the letter's primary signer, Rep. Steve King, had been made aware that the story was wrong.
  • Glenn Beck, whose "6 degrees of Obama" guilt-by-association attacks have generally lacked any shred of coherence, has been going after White House Communications Director Anita Dunn for once offhandedly referring to Mao Tse-tung (along with Mother Teresa) as one of her favorite political philosophers. He has repeatedly implied that this means she must endorse his heinous deeds and personal ideology while remaining conspicuously silent about the fact that many icons of the conservative movement have approvingly cited the political writings and tactics of communists like Mao, Lenin and the Viet Cong.
  • Just this past Sunday, the notoriously right-wing editorial page of the Washington Times savaged Judge Edward Chen, who is nominated to the Northern District Court of California, opening the piece with the sentence, "Another day, another Obama nominee who doesn't appear to love America." For its 'evidence,' the editorial cites: Chen's acknowledgement of what we all know -- that a judge's life experiences affect how he or she views a case (shades of the attacks against Sonia Sotomayor); the fact that he expressed concern -- as many thinking Americans did -- about potential recriminations for Muslim Americans following the tragedy of September 11; and his former work with the ACLU.

Of course, the use of race-baiting, red-baiting, gay-baiting and lies to characterize people as enemies of America doesn't stop with attacks on administration officials and nominees. There have been many more examples, and sadly, there will undoubtedly be many more to come.
 
That's why we must all be vigilant. We must call out fear-mongering and intimidation in government, in the media and in our own communities. And when we confront it, we must ask the vital question, "Have you no sense of decency?"
 
People For the American Way is getting out in front of this troubling and pervasive new trend. Through research, educational materials and activism tools, we'll give you what you need to stand up to the Right and McCarthyism.

PFAW