Why is the GOP keeping women and people of color off the bench?

To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker
Re: Why is the GOP keeping women and people of color off the bench?
Date: May 31, 2011

Last week, all Senate Republicans except Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski united to block Goodwin Liu, President Obama’s nominee to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, from getting an up or down confirmation vote.

Over the course of the debate on his nomination, Republicans freely distorted and mischaracterized Professor Liu’s record, but even in that environment, Sen. Charles Grassley’s attacks stood out.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Grassley, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, accused Professor Liu of wanting to make America like “Communist-run China.”

Putting aside Sen. Grassley’s gross mischaracterization of Liu’s record, the idea that a Taiwanese-American legal scholar, supported by public figures across the ideological spectrum, can be casually tarred with racially charged accusations by a senior member of the Judiciary Committee is deeply disturbing. The fact that Sen. Grassley’s behavior represents just another data point in the GOP’s attacks on women and people of color nominated by President Obama is even worse.

A review of the confirmation process faced by President Obama’s judicial nominees makes clear that there is a correlation between a nominee’s sex, race and ethnicity and how he or she is treated by the Senate’s Republican minority.

Since President Obama took office, every district court nominee with party-line opposition from Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans has been a woman or person of color. In addition, every public announcement of opposition to nominees from home-state Republican senators involves women or people of color: Victoria Nourse, a woman nominated for a seat on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals; Louis Butler, at African American nominated for a district court seat in Wisconsin; and Arvo Mikkanen, a Native American, nominated to be a district court judge in Oklahoma. Not a single Caucasian, male nominee elicited such opposition.

Even when nominees had support from Senate Republicans, women and people of color faced a far steeper climb to actually achieving confirmation. In the last Congress, it took an average of 256 days to confirm circuit court judges. Only two nominees faced delays longer than 300 days. Albert Diaz, a Latino, was approved by committee for a seat on the Fourth Circuit without opposition, yet Republicans forced a delay of 409 days before allowing a floor vote – in which he was at long last confirmed without a single opposing vote. Similarly, Jane Stranch’s nomination to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was confirmed with an overwhelming supermajority of 71-21, yet Senate Republicans stymied her confirmation for 403 days.

So far in the 112th Congress, while almost half of President Obama’s district court nominees have been people of color, only a third of the nominees on whom Republicans have allowed votes fall into that category. President Obama’s efforts to diversify the bench are being forcefully countered by the Senate GOP.

Part of the wisdom that Americans expect from our judges is an understanding of how a decision will affect ordinary people. When the federal bench lacks diversity, judges’ misunderstanding of other people’s lives can lead them to misinterpret the law.

Perhaps that’s just what Senate Republicans want.

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