Packing the Courts By Packing the Hearings

Sen. Hatch Packs Hearing With Three Controversial Nominees

Breaking with a bipartisan agreement dating to the 1980s, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch has scheduled a single hearing to examine three controversial nominees to lifetime seats on the federal appeals courts, virtually guaranteeing that senators will not be able to conduct a thoughtful and thorough review of their records, said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas. Hatch has scheduled a single confirmation hearing for Jeffrey Sutton, Deborah Cook, and John Roberts for January 29. In the mid-1980s, Senators Strom Thurmond, Joseph Biden, Bob Dole, and Robert Byrd agreed that there would be no more than one controversial nominee scheduled at any one time, an agreement that has been followed since then under both Republican and Democratic control.

Sen. Hatch is also pushing for a January 30 vote on another controversial nominee, Miguel Estrada, who stubbornly refused to answer a number of important questions about his approach to judging and to the Constitution at his confirmation hearing last year. Estrada has been nominated to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and is widely considered a potential future Supreme Court nominee. People For the American Way has urged members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the nominations of Jeffrey Sutton, Deborah Cook, and Miguel Estrada.

“Senator Hatch is making a mockery of the confirmation process,” said Neas. “He is trying to ensure that some nominees for powerful lifetime positions on the federal appeals courts will get little if any serious scrutiny. At the same time, he has called for additional hearings on Charles Pickering and Priscilla Owen even though they were rejected last year after extensive public hearings into their records on civil rights and other issues. Senator Hatch is showing disrespect for the Constitution and for his colleagues.”

Neas pointed out that during the Clinton administration, Hatch himself argued before the Federalist Society that it was important for Senators to “ascertain” nominees’ “jurisprudential views” in order to “prevent the confirmation of those who are likely to be judicial activists.” But now, however, Hatch is trying to push Estrada onto the appellate court without any such serious examination. Neas also noted that Estrada’s confirmation is opposed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Planned Parenthood and the NAACP.

Neas said Hatch’s efforts to short-circuit the confirmation process for Bush’s appeals court nominees must not be allowed to succeed, given how much is at stake. Appeals court judges are appointed for life, and in more than 99 percent of the cases they hear, they have the final word on the law and on issues of great importance to Americans’ lives and liberties. Many of Bush’s nominees would turn back the clock on decades of legal and social justice accomplishments.

“Jeffrey Sutton is one of the nation’s most aggressive advocates for an extremist states’ rights approach to the Constitution,” said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas. “He has fully supported the new states’ rights doctrine being pushed by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and he has urged the Court to go even further in eroding the ability of the federal government to protect both individual rights and provide for the common good in areas like environmental protection. That is why hundreds of national, state, and local organizations are opposing his confirmation.”

Neas said that Ohio Supreme Court Justice Deborah Cook has staked out a position at the extreme right of that court, frequently arguing for positions rejected by the court majority as contrary to the plain language of the law in order to achieve a desired result. “In one opinion after another, Deborah Cook has tried to stretch the law in ways that protect powerful interests at the expense of ordinary Americans who turn to the courts for justice,” Neas said. “She urged the court, for example, to uphold a law making it virtually impossible for workers to obtain damages from their employers for injuries caused by intentional misconduct by the companies. A person with such an approach to judging has no place on the powerful federal appeals court.” Neas noted that Cook’s confirmation is opposed by many home-state organizations for her record in the areas of equal opportunity, fairness, and worker safety.

Neas urged Senators to insist on a process that allows time for thorough review of every nominee’s record, and he called on Senators to vote against the confirmation of lifetime appeals court judges who have not demonstrated a commitment to upholding basic rights, freedoms, and protections that Americans have enjoyed for decades.

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