John McConnell

Religious Right Groups And Chamber of Commerce Fail To Block District Court Nominee

Cross-posted on Right Wing Watch

Religious Right and pro-corporate groups failed today to block President Obama’s nominee for U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, John McConnell, from receiving an up-or-down vote in the Senate. The Senate invoked cloture on McConnell’s nomination in a 63-33 vote, defeating the filibuster against McConnell. Filibusters against district court judges are extremely rare—only a handful of District Court nominees have ever faced cloture votes, and none have ever been blocked—and many Republicans previously vowed they would never filibuster a judicial nominee.

Today’s vote came after a long wait for McConnell: according to The Providence Journal, the delay caused by the concerted right-wing effort to block McConnell forced Rhode Island’s chief federal judge to “take the unusual step of reassigning more than two dozen civil cases to judges in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.”

Why the tough fight? McConnell faced virulent opposition from the Chamber of Commerce over his role fighting big tobacco companies and lead paint manufacturers. The Chamber and other groups that oppose corporate accountability found allies in the Religious Right groups that decided to fight McConnell as well.

The Conservative Action Project made McConnell a top target of their efforts. The group includes pro-corporate organizations like the 60 Plus Association, National Taxpayers Union, Americans for Limited Government, Citizens United, and American Tax Reform, along with social conservatives such as the Family Research Council, Traditional Values Coalition, Heritage Action, American Values, Liberty Counsel Action, and Eagle Forum. The Conservative Action Project’s Memo to the Movement [PDF] claimed McConnell was unqualified to serve in the judiciary because he was a trial lawyer with a history of challenging big business.

Eagle Forum derided him as a “pro-choice, anti-business, pro-judicial activism nominee” who “has made numerous anti-business statements.” The Family Research Council slammed McConnell for his ties to the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the country’s most prominent civil rights organizations, and Phillip Jauregui’s Judicial Action Group said that his link to the SPLC and the American Constitution Society shows he “supports organizations who support homosexual marriage and oppose conservative politicians.”

While the Corporate Right and the Religious Right filibuster of the McConnell nomination failed, many of these organizations will continue to work together to block other qualified judicial nominees and aggravate the country’s burgeoning judicial vacancy crisis.

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 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

Republicans Waiting It Out On Judicial Nominations

In the wake of Citizens United and other rulings that put corporate bank accounts ahead of individual rights, it has become increasingly clear where the priorities of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority lie. Republicans in Congress, unlike most Americans, like what they’re seeing—and are doing everything in their power to make sure the Roberts Court’s philosophy is reflected in lower courts throughout the country.

Apparently not satisfied with the current conservative bent of the nation’s entire judicial system (nearly 40% of federal judges nationwide were appointed by George W. Bush), Republican Senators are trying to stall district and circuit court judicial nominations until they are in a position to appoint federal judges once again, packing the court even more firmly for corporate interests.

A recent study by the Center for American Progress found that the current Republican obstruction of judicial nominations is truly unprecedented. The graph below pretty much says it all:

The current Republican obstructionism is unprecedented. Even George H.W. Bush, whose party never controlled the Senate during his term, enjoyed a confirmation rate nearly double that of President Obama and the current solidly Democratic Senate.

Yesterday, several senators put a much-needed spotlight on the GOP’s obstruction of judicial nominations. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island spoke about the special interests that are preventing public interest lawyer John McConnell, an extremely qualified nominee who enjoys bipartisan support, from serving his home state:

Why is it that nominees of President Obama are being held to a different, new standard than applied to the nominees of President Bush? Why have we departed from the longstanding tradition of respect to the views of home State Senators who know the nominees best and who best understand their home districts? … I ask this because we have a highly qualified nominee in Rhode Island, Jack McConnell, who was reported by the Judiciary Committee on June 17. It was a bipartisan vote, 13 to 6, with the support of Senator Lindsey Graham. Jack McConnell is a pillar of the legal community in Rhode Island…The Providence Chamber of Commerce has praised Jack McConnell as a well-respected member of the local community. Political figures from across our political spectrum have called for his confirmation, one of them being my predecessor as Rhode Island attorney general, Republican Jeffrey Pine.

…Notwithstanding the support of Senator Reed and myself, the two Senators from Rhode Island, notwithstanding that this is a district court nomination, notwithstanding the powerful support across Rhode Island from those who know Jack McConnell best, special interests from outside the State have interfered in his nomination. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, not the Rhode Island chapter, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has attacked Jack for having the temerity to stand up to big business, to the asbestos to representing the rights of the powerless. In doing so, the U.S. Chamber has created a cartoon image of Jack McConnell that bears no relation to the man Senator Reed and I know as a great lawyer, as a great Rhode Islander, and somebody who will be a great judge.

I ask my colleagues…do we want to let powerful out-of-State interests trump the better informed views of home State Senators about district court nominees?

This is not just a political question-- the GOP is so concerned about keeping the courts corporate-friendly in the long-term that they’re ignoring the very urgent short-term needs of the federal court system. While judicial positions around the country remain vacant, many Americans are forced to wait for inexcusably long periods to have their day in court as current judges struggle with an impossible workload. The Judicial Conference has declared 42 of the 99 current judicial vacancies “judicial emergencies.” Carolyn Lamm, President of the non-partisan American Bar Association, calls the current dearth of federal judges “urgent.” But the GOP clearly cares more about protecting their allies in the corporate world than allowing the lower court system to function.

PFAW

GOP Blocks 20 Judicial Nominees, Rebuffs Goodwin Liu Again

Nine Democratic senators went to the Senate floor today to call for up-or-down votes on the confirmation of 20 federal judicial nominees, many of whom have been waiting months to be confirmed and several of whom passed out of the Judiciary Committee with little or no opposition from members of either party. The Senators who spoke on the floor today included Mark Udall (CO), Michael Bennet (CO), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Herb Kohl (WI), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Jack Reed (RI), Ben Cardin (MD), Tom Carper (DE), and Ted Kaufman (DE).

The explanation from Senator Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of the architects of the obstruction? "Things do not always go as smoothly as you would like."

Among the nominees Democratic senators sought votes on were several whose nomination sagas we've been following. There were Albert Diaz and James Wynn of North Carolina who would be be, respectively, the first Latino and fourth African American appointed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (and who garnered one no vote between the two of them in committee). There was John McConnell of Rhode Island, who has come under attack from the powerful lobbyists at the Chamber of Commerce because of his record of defending consumers in suits against large manufacturers. There was William Joseph Martinez, the Colorado judge who has come under attack for having sat on an advisory panel for the ACLU.

And then there was Goodwin Liu. Sen. Ben Cardin told a Netroots Nation panel last week that Liu's hearing with the Judiciary Committee was "one of the most impressive confirmation hearings we've ever had." Richard Painter, who served as a lawyer in the Bush White House, called him "a fine choice for the federal bench." Yet, inexplicably, Liu, a law professor at Berkeley who is respected by legal scholars across the political spectrum, has become a flash point for Republican obstruction.

It's time for the Senate GOP to stop stalling votes on these critical nominations and come clean about their true priorities for the courts.

Many thanks to the Senators who took to the floor today to shine a spotlight on this unprecedented and senseless obstruction.

 

PFAW

Chamber of Commerce Wages “Unprecedented” Campaign Against Lead Paint Lawyer

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Chamber of Commerce’s campaign to prevent the confirmation of attorney John McConnell to be a Rhode Island district court judge, because of his work as a personal injury lawyer to hold corporations accountable for damage caused by their products.

Well, they haven’t succeeded yet, but it looks like they’ve certainly made their presence known. The Senate Judiciary Committee today approved McConnell’s nomination almost entirely along party lines—all but one of the seven Republicans on the committee voted against it.

Today’s Providence Journal reports that the Chamber sent the Judiciary Committee’s members a letter yesterday that made it very clear where they stood:


The Chamber’s letter escalates what was already an extraordinary campaign against the seating of a nominee to the federal trial bench. It is not common for nominations to these courts — dozens of which can be routinely cleared in a given year — to generate controversy. The Chamber says it is unprecedented for it to mount the kind of organized opposition it has launched against this particular U.S. District Court nominee

The Chamber, which tends to support Republicans through its campaign spending arm, has lobbied actively for changes in the system that permits large numbers of plaintiffs to seek large damage awards from companies.

“The Chamber urges you to oppose this nomination,” Josten told the Judiciary Committee in Tuesday’s letter. “Should the committee report Mr. McConnell’s nomination to the full Senate, the Chamber would consider votes on, or in relation to, this nomination in our annual How They Voted Scorecard.”

The Chamber is the biggest lobbying spender on Capitol Hill and its annual scorecard is no joke for lawmakers running for reelection. We’ll be sure to keep following the organization’s crusade as McConnell’s nomination moves to the Senate floor.
 

PFAW

Keeping the Courts Corporate

Corporate courts don’t happen by accident.

Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, has written an account of the efforts of the business lobby and Republican Senators to keep Rhode Island environmental lawyer John McConnell off the federal bench.

McConnell’s offense? Representing the State of Rhode Island in a lawsuit to get a lead paint manufacturer to clean up the damage caused by its toxic product. (A jury awarded the state $2.4 billion in cleanup costs; the Rhode Island Supreme Court threw out the verdict).

Whatever you think of the verdict, McConnell was a lawyer representing a client, the State of Rhode Island. He argued on behalf of his client, which is what lawyers are supposed to do. Litigators are not supposed to behave like judges (until and unless they actually become one).

That distinction was lost on Senators Kyl and Sessions. Sessions actually argued:

"Being passionate and zealous is a good quality for a litigator. But I do think those qualities are somewhat different in the cloistered halls of a courtroom, where you're reading briefs and trying to be objective. Those emotions might again start running, and you might say that 'There's a wrong there that I need to right.'"

The two Republican senators were echoing the arguments of the Chamber of Commerce, which had warned Congress against McConnell:

"His apparent bias against the business community and questionable judicial philosophy raise serious reservations about his fitness to serve a lifetime appointment to the federal bench," said Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform. "McConnell's elevation to the federal judiciary could create a 'magnet' jurisdiction that would encourage additional meritless, plaintiffs' lawyer-driven lawsuits."

The U.S. Chamber spends more on lobbying Congress than any other organization. It is not a coincidence that it has made itself a powerful—if not always logical— voice in the shaping of federal courts.
 

PFAW