People For the American Way

Defending the Blue Slip: Chuck Grassley Makes the Case Against Himself

News and Analysis

Sen. Chuck Grassley, who strongly defended the “blue slip” policy for President Obama’s judicial nominees, has done a screeching U-turn since Donald Trump took office.

On January 24, Grassley held a confirmation hearing for a judicial nominee, Michael Brennan, without the consent of both home state senators. As explained in PFAW’s letter opposing Brennan, President Trump not only failed to consult with both senators, he simply ignored the bipartisan commission process established by Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin. As Sen. Whitehouse pointed out, bipartisan commissions around the country have gotten the message from Grassley that their efforts are a waste of time.

This is the second time in less than two months that Grassley has made an “exception” to a century-old committee practice. Indeed, of three Trump circuit court nominees without the support of both home state senators, Grassley has held hearings for two. That constitutes an abandonment of the tradition, not simply an occasional exception.

After criticism from several committee Democrats, Grassley took the mic. He began in a somber tone:

Sen. Whitehouse, I heard everything you said. I’ll only correct one thing. That is, you mentioned the Republican majority. You can only blame one senator for what you don’t like, and that’s Chuck Grassley.

It’s true that over the course of the last 13 or 14 months I’ve had senators say, “You should do away with the blue slip policy.”

Most of those were people who have not been in the Senate a very long time.  As I kind of recall, when there was a—I’m going to go to something else as an illustration—I recall now that most of the Democrats that wanted to do away with the filibuster, let’s say in ’12, ’13, ’14, that period of time, not on judges but just generally, most of those were people that had not been in the Senate as a minority and they didn’t appreciate the role of the Senate. That’s the only place where minorities have a point of view.

So I forgive younger senators that came up to me maybe January-February-March last year saying, “You ought to do away with the blue slip.”

So this for 100 years has been a prerogative of the chairman of the committee. And I’ve always said since November 2016 when I knew I was going to be chairman of the committee—maybe it was, I don’t know when I said it—but anyway, “are you going to keep the blue slip policy?”

At this point, Grassley began to get worked up:

I don’t know who foments all this discussion, “you’re going to do away with the blue slip.” Maybe it’s some conservative group that wanted to influence people, I don’t know where it comes from.

He continued, with even more emotional intensity:

But I made very clear that we were going to have the blue slip policy like it has for 16 out of 18 chairmen in 100 years—It’s had some exceptions.

Now maybe there’s more exceptions. I don’t dispute anything that any of you said about the way you see it. But I laid out in three or four speeches the way I see it. But please don’t blame anybody but Sen. Grassley for the way the blue slip policy’s being handled.

This was an interesting moment, as Grassley constructed much of the argument against his own actions:

  • The Senate is a unique institution in American government in its respect for the minority party.
  • Once Trump won the election, conservative groups began to put pressure on him to eliminate the blue slip policy.
  • Longtime senators recognize the critical importance of protecting the rights of the minority, especially since senators in the majority value not having their voice snuffed out when they find themselves in the minority.
  • Grassley is making a lot of “exceptions.”
  • The responsibility for ignoring the input of home state senators lies on Grassley’s own shoulders.

Chuck Grassley has been in the Senate since 1981, nearly half a century. His legacy will be shaped in large part by his actions as chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the presidency of Donald Trump. Will he be remembered as the person:

  • who single-handedly could have protected the United States judicial system from dangerous Trump nominees, but chose not to?
  • who could have stood tall against efforts to undermine the role of each individual senator, but instead rolled over for Trump, Mitch McConnell, and right-wing interest groups?
  • who could have protected the institutional interests of the Senate, but instead subordinated the chamber to the White House?
  • who could have embodied the democratic principle that the law applies to everybody, but instead changed the rules as soon as they became inconvenient?

Surely some part of Chuck Grassley knows that what he’s doing is wrong.


blue slips, Chuck Grassley, judicial nominations, Protecting Lower Courts