Earlier this month, the White House returned to the Senate 54 federal judicial nominees who Senate Republicans had refused to vote on in the previous year. But one nominee was conspicuously absent from that list: Judge William Thomas, a Florida state judge who had been nominated to sit on a federal trial court.
At first, Thomas’ nomination seemed like a slam dunk: He is an experienced, respected judge who was nominated in 2012 with the support of both of Florida’s senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio. He also would have been the first openly gay black man to sit on the federal bench.
Then, mysteriously, Rubio changed his mind. Taking advantage of a Senate Judiciary Committee policy that allows any senator to block a committee hearing on any nominee from his or her home state, Rubio unilaterally refused to allow a hearing on Thomas. For months, the senator refused to explain why he was blocking Thomas’ nomination, until finally this summer a spokesperson cited “questions about [the nominee’s] judicial temperament and his willingness to impose appropriate criminal sentences.”
Rubio’s office provided two examples of instances in which they believed that Thomas didn’t impose “appropriate criminal sentences.” In both cases, Thomas imposed the highest sentence sought by the prosecution; in both cases, prosecutors praised his handling of the trials. Rubio's staff also claimed that in one of those cases, a grisly murder trial, Thomas “broke down in tears” when sentencing the defendant to death; news reports make clear that the judge's tears came when he was describing the brutal crime. As Chris Hayes put it, none of these complaints “pass the smell test.”
Now, finally, Rubio himself has gone on the record for the first time about why he blocked Thomas’ nomination. In an interview with Michael Putney, political reporter for the Miami-area Local 10 news, Rubio, looking visibly uncomfortable, repeats his office’s talking points about the two criminal cases they allege Judge Thomas imposed insufficiently harsh sentences in. “We are looking for judges that can accurately apply the law, particularly at the federal level,” Rubio said, never quite explaining how Thomas failed to do that.
This isn’t the first time that Rubio has blocked a Florida judicial nominee for less than convincing reasons. Rubio similarly changed his mind about Florida nominee Brian Davis – who is also African-American – at the behest of Sen. Chuck Grassley . Under pressure from local activists, Rubio eventually changed his mind again and allowed Davis’ nomination to go forward.
As Hayes said, it seems like the most likely explanation is that Judge Thomas was merely an “innocent bystander” in Rubio’s desperate race to win back the right-wing support he lost during his short-lived advocacy for immigration reform – an effort that so far isn’t panning out so well.
WASHINGTON – The Senate today confirmed Judge Robert Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Wilkins was one of three nominees blocked for months by Senate Republicans. The GOP admitted that they would block any and all of President Obama’s nominees to fill the three vacancies on this critically important court no matter who they were, which provoked the Senate to change its filibuster rules. Wilkins’ fellow nominees Patricia Millett and Nina Pillard were confirmed late last year.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way, responded to the vote:
“Today’s vote sends a supremely qualified and capable nominee to the nation’s second most influential court. It also puts an end to Senate Republicans’ dishonest effort to keep President Obama from filling vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, an effort that was destructive and transparently political.
“Now that the D.C. Circuit’s seats are full, it can get on with its important work for the American people. And just as importantly, if the Senate can put petty partisan fights behind it, it can get on with doing the American people's work as well, including filling the other long-vacant federal court seats across the country.”
WASHINGTON – President Obama today re-nominated 54 federal judicial nominees whose nominations had been sent back to the White House at the end of last year due to Republican obstruction. At the end of last year, Senate Republicans refused to hold over the president’s nominees, sending all but one – D.C. Circuit nominee Robert Wilkins – back to the White House.
Disappointingly, one nominee who had been stalled by GOP obstruction was not renominated: William Thomas of Florida, whom Sen. Marco Rubio singlehandedly blocked from a hearing for over a year.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way, issued the following statement:
It is encouraging that the White House has taken the earliest possible opportunity to put these 54 nominees back on the path to Senate confirmation. This is an especially urgent matter given that 22 of these nominees would fill officially-designated judicial emergencies.
It is stunning that this many nominees were been sent back to the president at the end of the year. Most of those who are now starting the confirmation process all over again could have easily received confirmation votes last year if not for Republican obstruction. Nine were waiting for Senate votes when their nominations were sent back and 24 were stalled in the Judiciary Committee by Republican senators abusing the committee’s rules and practices.
While we are pleased that the White House is working for the expeditious confirmation of these 54 nominees, it is disappointing that Judge William Thomas of Florida has been left off the list. Judge Thomas is an eminently qualified nominee and would make history as the first openly gay African-American man to become a federal judge. Yet a campaign of obstruction from Sen. Marco Rubio has kept Judge Thomas from even receiving a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, and has now succeeded in torpedoing his nomination entirely.
The president has also renominated a controversial slate of nominees from Georgia. In a state that is nearly one-third African American, just one of the president’s six nominees is a person of color, and questions have been raised about some of the nominees’ records on voting and civil rights.
Republicans have indicated that they will fight the president’s nominees whoever they are; that makes it all the more important that the best possible nominees are put forward.
I can understand why Senate Republicans are angry about the recent change in the Senate’s filibuster rules. It means that their agenda of obstruction just got a lot harder. But all their righteous indignation is ringing hollow.
Yesterday, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, issued a statement attacking the committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, for saying he would consider changing committee policies to make it harder for Republican senators to hold up nominations.
Democrats “are slowly but surely taking the world’s greatest deliberative body and moving towards a majoritarian body,” Grassley charged.
The reason Leahy has to even consider policy changes in committee is that GOP senators, in an attempt at retribution for the “nuclear option,” have repeatedly brought up an obscure rule that allows them to prevent the Judiciary Committee from meeting. They have also prevented the committee from meeting by simply not showing up, ensuring the lack of a quorum. Along with threats that Republican senators would refuse to return their “blue slips” signaling approval for hearings on home-state nominees, Sen. Leahy was faced with the prospect of not being able to process any nominees. Senate Republicans have literally not been allowing “the world’s greatest deliberative body” to deliberate on judicial nominations.
And the reason why Senate Democrats were driven to change the filibuster rules for presidential nominees in the first place was that the Republican minority was blocking nominees to positions they just didn’t want the president to be allowed to fill. In other words, they were using the Senate’s rules of obstruction in an attempt to nullify laws they did not like and reverse the results of the presidential election.
This didn’t promote “deliberation.” It shut the entire process down.
This sanctimonious whining from Grassley and his fellow obstructionist Republicans isn’t fooling anyone. Personally, I would have preferred not to have gotten to this place. My guess is that Senator Leahy would as well. But when you’re trying to govern a country and the minority party won’t let you complete even the most basic tasks of governance, there really is no choice. Comity has to be a two-way street.
The high and mighty act doesn’t work when you’re behaving like a child.