Senate Democrats tout judicial confirmations amid criticisms
Outside groups and Democratic members of Congress have urged changes to move Biden's picks for the federal bench
Senate Democrats pushed back this week against criticisms that the absence of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the continuation of a Senate Judiciary Committee tradition have hampered progress on President Joe Biden’s picks for the federal bench.
Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who faces pressure from Democratic members of Congress and liberal advocacy groups to make changes to the “blue slip” process, touted the Senate’s confirmation of seven judicial nominees this week.
“We’re going to keep confirming highly qualified, diverse candidates to these lifetime appointments!” Durbin tweeted on Friday.
And Feinstein, who has been absent since she was hospitalized with a case of shingles earlier this year and faced calls to resign from the Senate, pointed to those confirmations and other committee action to counter criticism that her absence has slowed the process.
“There has been no slowdown,” the California Democrat said Thursday in a news release.
Durbin has stood by the blue slip process, which requires both home-state senators return blue slips on a district court nomination before a confirmation hearing is set. That gives senators a de facto veto over appointments to district court seats in their home states.
Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has leaned on the tradition in formally blocking the nomination of Scott Colom, who Biden picked for a judgeship position in the federal Northern District of Mississippi.
Last week, the Congressional Black Caucus urged Durbin to change the practice, arguing that it’s outdated, according to a caucus summary of the meeting.
The caucus told Durbin that the tradition is an obstacle in confirming judges who will defend the rights of Black Americans when it comes to issues like voting rights and preserving protections against discrimination, according to the summary.
A coalition of organizations, including progressive groups Demand Justice and Alliance for Justice, sent a letter to Durbin calling for him to change or discontinue blue slips. The groups said they are concerned that the tradition, if left unchanged, will stop Biden from filling dozens of vacancies on the federal bench.
“As Republicans delay and block highly-qualified, diverse Biden judicial nominees, we are counting on you to act to limit their bad faith and to implement the necessary reforms to ensure that President Biden can fill every judicial vacancy,” the groups wrote in the letter.
Durbin has instead encouraged people on both sides of the aisle to cooperate on judicial nominees. “If we can get [the] cooperation of the Republican senators in filling judicial vacancies, we can prove that it still works,” Durbin said in a brief interview Thursday.
Senators from both parties have used the move in the past to block judicial nominees from their states. And senators have underscored the way the blue slip keeps sway over judicial appointments in the legislative branch instead of ceding it to the executive branch, and senators can control the district court judges who will serve in their states.
And in 2018, a report from Durbin and other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee said the practice makes sure that nominees are “within the mainstream of legal thought and are well-regarded members of the legal communities in the states where they will serve.”
“It is a policy, but it’s one that I used to my advantage in the past as a minority member of the Senate,” said Durbin in a Chicago Sun-Times event in January. “I respect its presence.”
Feinstein, in her press release, pointed out that the Judiciary Committee has advanced nominees to the Senate floor during her absence, and took a swipe at Republicans on the panel for blocking a few nominees from moving forward.
Senate Republicans objected last month to a bid from Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer to temporarily replace Feinstein, 89, on the Judiciary Committee.
“I’m confident that when I return to the Senate, we will be able to move the remaining qualified nominees out of committee quickly and to the Senate floor for a vote,” Feinstein said in the news release.
The statement did not say when she would return to the Senate.