People For the American Way

A Reminder of Chuck Grassley’s Perfidy on Judicial Nominations

News and Analysis

The Senate is holding a confirmation vote this week that exemplifies the GOP’s abandonment of the norms that undergird our democracy. South Carolina judicial nominee Marvin Quattlebaum would fill a judicial vacancy that exists only because Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley required Obama nominees to meet a standard that he has decided not to apply to Trump nominees.

Quattlebaum would fill a seat that has been vacant since 2013. President Obama had two nominations for this judgeship, and—under the blue slip policy of Grassley and his Democratic predecessor, Patrick Leahy—neither nominee advanced to a hearing.

President Obama nominated state judge Alison Lee in June of 2013. She was the first African American woman to be elected as a South Carolina state circuit judge. The American Bar Association (ABA) panel examining her record found her qualified, with a majority of the panel giving her its highest rating of “Well Qualified.” However, both Sens. Graham and Scott withheld their blue slips. Chairman Leahy respected the senators, and he did not hold a hearing for Judge Lee.

President Obama made another effort to fill this vacancy in 2016, again with an African American. He nominated Donald Beatty in February 2016. Beatty was a longtime justice on the South Carolina Supreme Court and was found to be “Unanimously Well Qualified” by the ABA. However, Sens. Graham and Scott again withheld their blue slips. This time, Sen. Grassley was the chairman. Consistent with the position he had unambiguously taken when he became chairman, he never held a hearing for Beatty. As a result, the judgeship was still vacant when Obama left office.

So this week’s confirmation vote for Marvin Quattlebaum—a white man—is possible only because Committee chairs of both parties respected the historic role of home state senators in the nominations process for judicial nominees from their own states.

But for Trump’s nominees, Grassley applies a different standard. He has advanced two nominees through the committee over the objections of a home state senator: David Stras (8th Circuit, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken) and William Brennan (7th Circuit, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin).

As chairman, Grassley could have changed the blue slip policy when he took over the committee in 2015—allowing President Obama’s nominees to advance regardless of the objections of home state senators. But he didn’t. He changed the policy only when Trump became president, so that it wouldn’t limit a fellow Republican in the White House the way it had limited Obama.

But changing the rules based on who’s in power erodes trust in the rule of law, which is hardly a proud legacy for the person leading the Judiciary Committee.

Quattlebaum is far from the only Trump nominee filling a vacancy made possible because of Grassley’s blue slip policy for Democratic presidents. Nearly a third of Trump’s confirmed circuit court judges are now serving in lifetime positions because Obama nominees were blocked by Grassley’s policy for Democratic presidents:

  • 3rd Circuit: Stephanos Bibas (Obama had nominated Rebecca Haywood)
  • 6th Circuit: Amul Thapar (Obama had nominated Lisabeth Hughes)
  • 7th Circuit: Amy Comey Barrett (Obama had nominated Myra Selby)
  • 11th Circuit: Kevin Newsom (Obama had nominated Abdul Kallon)

And on deck is one of Trump’s most notorious district court nominees, voter suppression promoter Thomas Farr, who is nominated to fill a vacancy on the Eastern District of North Carolina that exists only because of Grassley’s Democratic president blue slip policy. Patricia Timmons-Goodson, nominated by President Obama, would have been the first African American judge in the district’s history. However, she did not have the support of North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, and Grassley did not hold a confirmation hearing for her.

So Quattlebaum is hardly alone in benefiting from a policy that Grassley tossed out the window as soon as it would have been used to limit Republican power. Quattlebaum had nothing to do with that, so it is no reflection on him. But it is a reflection on Grassley, revealing a man with little honor, little respect for his colleagues in the Senate, and little respect for norms that protect the rule of law.