The topic of discussion on Sandy Rios’ American Family Radio program Wednesday was diversity among federal judicial nominees. The Washington Post published a story over the weekend detailing President Obama’s largely successful effort to appoint more women, people of color and openly LGBT people to federal judgeships. The voice of dissent in the article was that of the Committee for Justice’s Curt Levey, who told the Post that the White House was “lowering their standards” in nominating nonwhite judges. So naturally, Rios invited Levey on as a guest and explained to him why she disapproves of President Obama’s diverse judicial nominations.
In particular, Rios disapproves of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, respectively the third and fourth women ever to sit on the high court. Sotomayor and Kagan, Rios says, have been forgetting their place and behaving “rudely,” “interrupting” and “speaking inappropriately” to, of all people, Justice Antonin Scalia.
While Levey correctly notes that “Scalia can give it out as well as take it,” he agrees with Rios that Sotomayor, the Supreme Court’s first Latina justice, “has occasionally, at least, stepped over the line.” In particular, he says Sotomayor – who he once accused of supporting “violent Puerto Rican terrorists” -- “sort of lost it” during arguments on the Voting Rights Act, when she contradicted Scalia’s stunning assertion that the law represents a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
In fact, while Scalia’s bombast provoked audible gasps in the hearing room, Sotomayor waited several minutes before calmly asking the attorney challenging the Voting Rights Act, “Do you think that the right to vote is a racial entitlement in Section 5?"
Later, Rios, with an impressive lack of self-awareness, marvels that progressive groups criticized Scalia for his remarks. “Groups on the left,” Levey responds, “shall we say, like to personalize things.”
Rios: I read an article that Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, at least this article was intimating that they are behaving in a – these are my words – sort of rudely on the bench, to Scalia and to others, interrupting, speaking inappropriately. Have you observed that? Do you know what I’m talking about and is that true?
Levey: Um, yeah. I mean, you know, Scalia can give it out as well as take it, but yeah, Sotomayor has gone over the line a number of times. Most recently in the Voting Rights Act case, which was just last week, where, you know, Scalia had the nerve to speak the truth and refer to the Voting Rights Act as “racial preferences,” which of course is what it’s become by guaranteeing that there be minority districts formed, minority congressional districts. And, you know, Sotomayor sort of lost it when Obama [sic] said that, interrupted and you know, basically made fun of Scalia’s comment. So yeah, I think they have the right to be aggressive up there, but Sotomayor has occasionally, at least, stepped over the line.
Rios: And on the Voting Rights Act and Scalia’s comments, you know, there were demonstrators at the Court last week, hundreds of them, demonstrating against Antonin Scalia. I don’t remember that happening. I don’t remember a Supreme Court justice – doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened – but I don’t remember it being a subject of public demonstrations.
Levey: No. Typically they will, you know, they’ll, protestors at the Supreme Court will focus on issues, not justices. But you know, that changed of late. There’s been in the last two years a lot of, you know, progressive groups have gone personally after Scalia and especially Thomas and his wife. But you know, we see that in so much of politics, that groups on the left like to, shall we say, personalize things.
Rios: Yeah, as like in Alinsky, yes, personalize and target, yeah, so we are seeing some very new things and actually pretty dangerous I think.
Earlier in the program, Rios and Levey lamented the fact that President Obama has had more openly LGBT people confirmed to the federal bench than all of his predecessors combined. Echoing right-wing arguments made against Romney advisor Richard Grennell, who was forced to resign last year after less than a month on the job, Rios claimed she didn’t mind that the president was appointing gay people to federal judgeships, but that they are “activists who are trying to change the law.”
Levey: You know, I don’t have any problem with him nominating gay and lesbian nominees. The problem is that they should be gay and lesbian nominees who respect the Constitution. You know, there are…
Rios: I don’t disagree, Curt, just for the record, I don’t disagree with that. It’s the activists, activists who are trying to change the law that I will have trouble sitting on the bench.
Levey: Exactly. He’s not appointing, you know, conservative or even moderate, you know, gay Americans, he’s appointing very radical gay Americans. And, you know, again, it’s not so much any individual nominee as it is the pattern here. Of the 35 or so nominees who are pending now, only six are straight white males, even though about half the legal profession is straight white males. So, do straight white males have some, you know, right to a certain number of seats? Of course not. But if you were doing it in a balanced way without any preference for minorities of various types, then you’d probably wind up with about 17 or 18 of those 35 being straight white males. The fact that there’s only six tells us that there’s a system of preferences going on.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” this weekend, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave one of the best debunkings I’ve seen of the Right's line that a judge should be no more than an umpire, exercising no independent judgment and facing no difficult questions. Using the politically neutral example of the 3rd Amendment, Sotomayor explains how even the most seemingly clear-cut parts of the Constitution still require interpretation by judges and Justices:
Chief Justice John Roberts made headlines when, in his confirmation hearings, he said that a judge’s job was merely to call “balls and strikes.” The comforting words of his analogy hide the fact that most of the issues the Supreme Court approaches are complex and require human judgment – that’s why they reach the Supreme Court in the first place. They also conveniently obscure the fact that the conservative bloc on the Court is plenty influenced by their own ideology – there are plenty of examples here.
Justice Elena Kagan, in her confirmation hearings, gave another great rebuke to Roberts’ flawed baseball analogy. “We know that not every case is decided 9-0,” she said, “and we know that’s not because anybody’s acting in bad faith. It’s because reasonable people can reasonably disagree sometimes. So in that sense, the law does require a kind of judgment, a kind of wisdom. “
On CNN’s website today, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin laments out how small a role the Supreme Court has played in the presidential election so far. He writes:
With a little more than a month to go, it's not too late to ask the candidates to take a stand on their plans for the court. The president has already had two appointments, and he named Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. But what does Obama, a former law professor, think about the court? Does he believe in a "living" Constitution, whose meaning evolves over time? Or does he believe, like Justices Scalia and Thomas, that the meaning of the document was fixed when it was ratified, in the 18th century.
By the same token, what kind of justices would Romney appoint? Who are his judicial role models? Romney has praised Chief Justice John Roberts, but is the candidate still a fan even after the chief voted to uphold the ACA?
No one is asking these questions. But there are few more important things to know about our current and future presidents.
Toobin is absolutely right that the candidates’ plans for the Supreme Court deserve a lot more air time than they’re getting. But he’s wrong to suggest that we know nothing about what President Obama and Governor Romney have in mind for the Court.
President Obama has already picked two Supreme Court justices. Both, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, have been strong moderates, balancing out the retro extremism of Justices Scalia and Thomas. When female Wal-Mart employees wanted to band together to sue their employer for pay discrimination, Sotomayor and Kagan stood on the side of the women’s rights, while Scalia and Thomas twisted the law to side with the corporation. When Justices Thomas and Scalia ruled that a woman harmed by a generic drug couldn’t sue the drug’s manufacturer in state court, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan stood up for the rights of the consumer.
Mitt Romney obviously hasn’t had a chance to pick a Supreme Court justice yet, but he’s given us a pretty good idea of who he would choose if given the opportunity. On his website, Romney promises to “nominate judges in the mold of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito.” After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the health care reform case, Romney announced he had changed his mind about Roberts, who declined to destroy the law while still writing a stunningly retrogressive opinion redefining the Commerce Clause.
And, of course, Romney sent a clear signal to his conservative base when he tapped Robert Bork to advise him on legal and judicial issues. Bork’s record, and what he signals about Romney’s position on the Supreme Court, is chilling:
Romney’s indicated that he would want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. He’s even attacked the premise of Griswold v. Connecticut, the decision that prohibited states from outlawing birth control by establishing a right to privacy.
Yes, the candidates should be made to answer more questions about their plans for the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. But there’s a lot that we already know.
(For more, check out PFAW’s website RomneyCourt.com.)
Speaking at a campaign event in Colorado today, President Obama laid out the crucial importance of the Supreme Court in November’s election:
Today is the three-year anniversary of Sonia Sotomayor taking her seat on the Supreme Court. Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of Elena Kagan taking her seat on the Supreme Court. So let's be very clear -- the next President could tip the balance of the Court in a way that turns back the clock for women and families for decades to come. The choice between going backward and moving forward has never been so clear.
The choice has never been so clear. In the Huffington Post today, People For president Michael Keegan lays out what’s at stake as we pick the man who will pick our next Supreme Court justices:
So who would Romney pick for the Supreme Court? We've gotten a hint from his choice of former judge Robert Bork as his campaign's judicial advisor. Bork's brand of judicial extremism was so out of step with the mainstream that a bipartisan majority of the Senate rejected his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. Bork objected to the part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that desegregated lunch counters; he defended state laws banning birth control and "sodomy"; he was unabashedly in favor of censorship; he once ruled that a corporation could order its female employees to be sterilized or be fired. And, though it might not seem possible, since his confirmation battle Bork has gotten even more extreme.
Any justice appointed by Romney would likely fall in the footsteps of Bork in undermining workers' rights, eliminating civil rights protections, siding with corporations over the rights of individuals, threatening women's reproductive freedom, and rolling back basic LGBT rights. President Obama, on the other hand, has promised to pick more justices who share the constitutional values of Justice Sotomayor.
To learn more about Mitt Romney's dangerous vision for the Supreme Court, visit www.RomneyCourt.com.
To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, People For the American Way
Date: May 9, 2012
Subject: Debunking the GOP’s Disinformation Campaign on Judicial Obstruction
On Monday, 150 Americans from 27 states met in the White House with senior Administration officials and spent the day lobbying their senators to end the obstruction of qualified judicial nominees. For those Republican senators who may have thought the obstruction that is keeping our court system from functioning properly had gone unnoticed, it must have been an unpleasant surprise to learn their constituents are paying attention.
In response, Senate Republicans are throwing out a lot of irrelevant numbers and misleading comparisons in a desperate attempt to fog the issue, but they are plainly unable to rebut the clear fact that their constituents have noticed: that Republicans are needlessly obstructing judicial nominations.
For instance, because President Bush’s confirmed nominees at this point in his term were processed so much more quickly and fairly than have President Obama’s, the Republican Policy Committee concocts an excuse to ignore that inconvenient truth. They say we should be comparing President Obama’s first term to President Bush’s second term, because both saw two Supreme Court nominations that took up a lot of committee and Senate resources.
That lets them point out that President Obama has had more lower court confirmations in his first term than President Bush did in his second. But there is a reason Bush had fewer judges confirmed in his second term: There were fewer vacancies. When Bush entered office, there were 80 vacancies in the federal courts, a number he cut down to 37 by the end of his first term. In contrast, because of Republican obstruction, the number of vacancies began to climb sharply when President Obama became the person making the nominations, and it has remained at crisis levels his entire time in office.
In addition, although Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were confirmed in 2009 and 2010, the slow-walking of lower court nominations continued in ensuing years. In the 112th Congress, which began five months after Kagan’s confirmation, nominees have been held up on the floor more than three months on average, even if they are unopposed.
Republicans also blame President Obama for not making enough nominations. But the political reality is that the president needs the approval of home state senators if a nomination is to even get a committee hearing. And contrary to the practice of President Bush, the current White House actually consults home state senators in an effort to find consensus nominees. If GOP senators won’t work with the president to identify candidates who they can all agree on, the president is not the one to blame.
In any event, finding a nominee for every vacancy would not solve the bottleneck that Republicans have created at the end of the confirmation process. There are currently 19 nominees on the Senate calendar awaiting votes who could be confirmed today if the Republican leadership gave their consent.
But perhaps the most disingenuous talking point comes from Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. In yesterday’s floor debate on the confirmation of Kristine Baker to a district court in Arkansas – whose nomination has been pending on the floor since February – he says a Bush nominee to the same district was treated far worse:
I would note that President Bush’s nominee, J. Leon Holmes, sat on the executive calendar for more than 14 months awaiting confirmation. From nomination, his confirmation took over 17 months. Again, why was President Bush’s nominee treated worse than this President’s nominee?
Sen. Grassley isn’t comparing apples and oranges – he’s comparing apples and skyscrapers. Holmes was so controversial that even the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee did not approve of his nomination. In a rare step reflecting serious concerns about the merits of the nomination, a sharply divided committee voted 10-9 to forward it to the floor without a formal endorsement. After that, it was the Republicans who then controlled the Senate who delayed the confirmation vote for more than a year, fearing the Senate would reject Holmes. When he was finally confirmed in 2004, it was by a 51-46 vote.
So Republicans delayed a vote on Holmes because he was extremely divisive and lacked support in the Senate. In contrast, Kristine Baker – who cleared committee with a 17-1 vote and was confirmed by a bipartisan voice vote – was delayed by Republicans because of the Sotomayor and Kagan confirmations?
Republicans cannot deny that they are making President Obama’s judicial nominations wait more than 4 times longer for votes than was the case at this point in the Bush presidency, even though most of them are consensus nominees with strong bipartisan support. Their efforts to distract the American people from that stark fact resemble the Wizard of Oz trying to get Dorothy to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
Ultimately, though, this isn’t about statistics. It’s about people. It’s about the people who count on having their day in court, only to learn first-hand that justice delayed is justice denied. It’s the victims of predatory lending practices, consumer fraud, environmental destruction, and civil rights violations. It’s the business owners who can’t get relief from anti-competitive activities, can’t complete their mergers, and can’t enforce their contracts. This is about Americans across the nation who deserve a justice system that works.
Press contact: Miranda Blue, firstname.lastname@example.org, (202) 467-4999
The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved the nomination of Maine attorney William Kayatta Jr. to sit on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Only two committee members voted against allowing Kayatta a vote from the full Senate: Utah’s Mike Lee, who is still protesting all Obama nominees, and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who gave the following reason, according to the Portland Press Herald:
In a statement on his opposition to Kayatta's nomination, Sessions cited Kayatta's role as lead evaluator for the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary during the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
Sessions said Kayatta saw fit to give Kagen the highest rating despite her lack of substantial courtroom and trial experience, as a lawyer or trial judge. Sessions said the rating was "not only unsupported by the record, but, in my opinion, the product of political bias."
Yes, that’s right. Kayatta was involved in the American Bar Association’s nonpartisan rating process, which dared to call the solicitor general and former Harvard Law School dean “well qualified” for the job of Supreme Court Justice.
Sessions, one of the most outspoken opponents of Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination frequently slammed her lack of judicial experience in her confirmation hearings two years ago. He seemed to conveniently forget that the late conservative icon Chief Justice William Rehnquist also came to the High Court without having previously served as a judge – as have over one third of all Justices in U.S. history. The American Bar Association similarly found Rehnquist qualified for the job and called him “one of the best persons available for appointment to the Supreme Court [pdf].
It would be funny if it weren’t so appalling: Sessions’ grudge against Kagan runs so deep that he not only objected to her nomination, he’s objecting to anyone who who’s dared to call her qualified for her job.