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3 Things to Watch for in the Senate Judicial Vote

Hey, I used to work with that guy! Christie has a connection to Vazquez. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Hey, I used to work with that guy! Christie has a connection to Vazquez. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate returns Wednesday for its first vote since Winter Storm Jonas slammed the East Coast, on the confirmation of John Vazquez to be a district judge in New Jersey. While the vote is a seemingly routine calendar item , Vazquez’ nomination brings up issues across all three branches of government, and even the 2016 presidential race.  

Here is a quick rundown of items to note about Vazquez as he faces his vote. He used to work for Chris Christie . Vazquez was an assistant U.S. attorney working under Christie when the New Jersey governor and GOP presidential candidate was U.S. Attorney for the Garden State. Vazquez worked as a federal prosecutor from 2001 to 2005, while Christie was appointed to the role in 2002 and served until 2008, when he resigned to run for governor.  

Even after Vazquez left the U.S. attorney’s office, the two were among the state’s legal elite together. (They are also both graduates of Seton Hall’s law school.) Vazquez went on to serve from 2007 to 2008 as the state’s first assistant attorney general, the No. 2 legal officer for the state. Governors don’t typically weigh in on district court nominations, and Christie has been mum about Vazquez. Asked for comment about the nomination, the Christie presidential campaign deferred to the governor’s statehouse staff, which did not respond to a request for comment.  

Christie recently made news when he claimed at a Jan. 14 GOP debate that he had never supported Sonia Sotomayor’s 2009 nomination to to the Supreme Court. When he was running for governor in 2009 against Corzine, a race he won, Christie said that while Sotomayor wouldn’t have been his choice, she was qualified and should be confirmed.  

“Elections have consequences. One of those consequences are judicial appointments. While Judge Sotomayor would not have been my choice, President [Barack Obama] has used his opportunity to fill a seat on the Supreme Court by choosing a nominee who has more than proven her capability, competence and ability. I support her appointment to the Supreme Court and urge the Senate to keep politics out of the process and confirm her nomination,” he said, according to PolitickerNJ .  

He would fill a judicial emergency need . Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., disagree on the pace of confirming judicial nominees. Grassley said on the floor this month, “There is no judicial vacancy crisis” and cited numbers showing the district and circuit court benches are “over 91 percent filled.”  

But the spot Vazquez has been nominated to fill on the District Court of New Jersey is a judicial emergency vacancy, according to Leahy. Obama nominated Vazquez to the seat in March, and Vazquez was among several nominees who have been cleared by the Judiciary Committee on a voice vote.  

If Vazquez is confirmed, 14 more judicial nominees approved by the committee await a floor vote, though there is no deal yet to bring them up.  

The floor vote could get interesting . The vote on Vazquez’ nomination is part of a deal the Senate agreed to last year to confirm five judges during the chamber’s current work period. Senators have confirmed two of those nominees: Luis Restrepo on Jan. 11 to be a circuit judge for the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and Wilhelmina Wright on Jan. 19 to be a district judge for the District of Minnesota. Vazquez would be the third piece of the deal, followed by Rebecca Ebinger for the Southern District of Iowa and Leonard Strand  for the Northern District of Iowa.  

Restrepo was confirmed easily, 82-6. But the vote on Wright did not go as smoothly. She was confirmed 58-36, but only after the vote was stuck at 39 for an extended period of time and then helped along when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., changed his vote from “no” to “yes.”  

The conservative group Heritage Action for America has advocated that the Senate stop confirming any Obama nominees unless it affects national security, and it put senators on notice that a vote to confirm Wright would count against them in its legislative scorecard. She was confirmed anyway. In a blog post published on Tuesday , Heritage Action’s William Wolfe wrote, “Moving forward, Heritage Action will continue to oppose all judicial nominees and reserve the right to key vote against any and all judicial nominees retroactively.”  

New Jersey’s two Democratic senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, both support Vazquez and will certainly push their colleagues to support him. But the dropoff in support from Restrepo to Wright could signal that Republican senators are feeling some heat from the right not to confirm another Obama nominee.  

Adding to the calculus is that the next two nominees scheduled for floor votes, Ebinger and Strand, would fill needs in Iowa, home to Grassley and another Republican senator, Joni Ernst. They both voted for Wright. Their support could be key in making sure Vazquez gets majority support.

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