Judicial nominations and political war games

June 25, 2008
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Today's post is from IL reporter Michael Hoskins:

Indiana hasn’t gotten any news this week so far in the arena of federal judicial nominations. But what’s happened is worth taking a look at.

The full U.S. Senate Tuesday evening confirmed a controversial Michigan appellate judge to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals based in Cincinnati. Judge Helene White was elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1992. What makes this confirmation historic is that her name has been in the hat for the 6th Circuit for 11 years. That’s not a typo; more than a decade. Her actual nomination came from President Bill Clinton in 1997, but Republicans blocked it and the nomination languished for years. She never received a vote before President George W. Bush withdrew her nomination in 2001. That’s the longest time without a vote for any judicial candidate in Senate history. In legal circles and those watching judicial confirmations, Judge White’s nomination had become a symbol of how partisan politics can influence the judiciary. Angry Democrats and Republicans have been battling since 1997 about this nomination, accusing each other at times of trying to pack the courts to direct rulings to their liking.

Earlier this year, President Bush resubmitted Judge White’s name in exchange for his choices of two other Michigan nominees: attorney Raymond Kethledge to another 6th Circuit vacancy and U.S. attorney Stephen Murphy (who the current president had originally wanted for the 6th Circuit). The three were a package deal.

Of course, nothing that controversial is coming from Hoosier state as it relates to recent and current nominations. That’s the good news. Judge John D. Tinder easily made it to the 7th Circuit last year and Magistrate Judge William T. Lawrence is sailing through the confirmation process since being nominated by President Bush in February. As with Judge Tinder’s confirmation, both Indiana senators – Republican Dick Lugar and Democrat Evan Bayh – came together to smile, shake hands, and say good things about the judicial nominees from their state. The Senate may vote on Magistrate Lawrence’s nomination Thursday and if the recent past is any indication, it’s expected to be a historic, and completely uncontroversial, confirmation.

But in a time when judicial independence is trumpeted by so many at all levels, what does this 6th Circuit political bickering say about politics and the judiciary overall? Practically, delays mean vacancies. That means courts must juggle rising caseloads, and that’s just not good for anyone in the legal system. But how can we talk about judicial independence on one hand and then watch as politicians try to cherry-pick candidates? It seems this can be seen everywhere from the federal level to the state level.
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  • It seems that there always has been, and always will be, political tension in the nomination process, particularly with nominees who have political baggage. As exemplified by Judges Tinder, Hamilton and Lawrence,

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