TOPICS > Politics

Bench Battle

May 9, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Now, how all this looks to two key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee; the chairman, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Senator McConnell, when you look at the work of the committee over the last year, what’s your conclusion?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well first I want to comment my good friend Pat Leahy the chairman has done an excellent job moving district court nominees. He was particularly fair in my own state of Kentucky where we had three vacancies at the district court level, which he managed to process in an expeditious way. The issue we’re trying to highlight today are the circuit court nominees.

One year ago today President Bush sent up 11 extraordinarily well-qualified nominees for the circuit courts. Three of them have been acted on, the other eight have not even received a hearing. I think it’s important to note that President Reagan, the first President Bush, and President Clinton all had their first 11 circuit court nominees confirmed within a year. And so we’re asking of the Senate Democratic majority that they process these nominations, at least give them a hearing, if there is something wrong with them, maybe that will come out in a hearing.

These are an outstanding group, including an Hispanic American, Miguel Estrada who has an incredible story coming to America and learning the English language and going on to great success. We have a judge in the sixth circuit, my own sixth circuit, which is 50 percent vacant who if nominated a nominee from Michigan would be the first Arab American on any circuit court in the United States in history. These folks are entitled to a hearing and some action. And that’s what we wanted to highlight today.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Leahy, as chairman how do you defend the work of the committee over the past year?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well if I wanted to just defend it I would simply say look at the committee during the six years previously, when it was under Republican control. Look at it during the last ten months, when it’s been under Democratic control. We did more in that ten months then the Republicans did in any of the six years before and considerably more than they did in a number of the years. If all it was was a number game and wanting to defendant l defend, we are moving much faster, confirming President Bush’s nominees, than the Republicans ever did for President Clinton.

But what bothers me is when it turns into – taking the impartial, nonpartisan court and turning it into a political football. Somebody comes to me and said the President announced today you only confirmed three judges, we confirmed fifty-six, nine of them courts of appeals judges. They said what about the blockade, if it’s a blockade, it’s a pretty porous one, because his nominees are going through a lot faster than President Clinton’s nominees went through. In fact, in the first six months of last year when the Republicans controlled the Senate, even though the President had a number of nominees appear, they didn’t even bother to hold a hearing on them. I started setting up hearings within ten minutes after becoming chairman of the committee. So that’s easy to defend on that point.

But then you look at the further question: What were the federal court be? The federal courts would be available to everybody, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, no matter what the political ideology. And when a President tries to stay, no, I want to shape it into a particular narrow political ideology that can’t be done. The Senate didn’t allow Franklin Roosevelt to do that; he was a popular war time President that tried to pact court. Fortunately for history’s sake the Senate said no. We’ll say no now.

RAY SUAREZ: Many Republican Senators made the point today that things are a little different during the opening months of a new administration and pointed out the confirmation rates in the early times of both Republican and Democratic Presidents. How do you measure up using that as a yardstick?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I use the yardstick, the best yardsticks we could find, President of one party and Senate control of the other, we’ve done a lot better for President Bush than the Republicans ever did for President Clinton. But I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact… I chuckle when I see a number of the Senators up there saying, we have to go faster. I’ve tried not to embarrass them putting up on the screen their letters they wrote to me and say, thank you for moving the judges from our state so much faster than we ever would have for you. I don’t play that game.

I want a court. We had a number of these circuits where President Clinton made nominations; they sat there for year after year after year — never got a hearing. Never got a vote. I expect that all of the people are going to get a hearing, provided the Senators sent back the blue slips — they’ll get hearings. And they’ll get votes. So we’re not going to do the things in the past. But I have to tell you right now, be very serious, if a President nominates somebody so that he thought it would shape the court, very ideologically to the far left or very ideologically to the far right I’m going to vote against that person. I want the federal court to be open to everyone.

RAY SUAREZ: Well let’s go back to Senator McConnell because many of the Democrats today in response to the critiques from your side of the aisle have said, well it’s not just about numbers but it’s about what these men and women stand for. Is that a change?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think it is when — it’s been a factor in Supreme Court nominees from time to time but that is a different thing when it comes to circuit court nominees. Again let’s focus on the first two years of each of the last Presidents. President Reagan, President Bush and President Clinton all got their first 11 circuit court nominees confirmed within a year. All we’re asking for here is fair treatment.

Then let’s focus on the 6th circuit, the circuit in which my state is located, 50 percent vacant and that’s not because Republicans were stone walling nominees backing them up. Two of those vacancies just occurred since President Bush, four of them occurred right at the end of President Clinton’s period. So these vacancies didn’t get created because there was a refusal to act on the part of a Republican controlled Senate. What we have got is a 50 percent vacant 6th circuit; it’s dysfunctional.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Those numbers are wrong, Mitch. For the last three years President Clinton’s administration, there were nominees and the Republican controlled Senate refused to hear them — nominees for the 6th circuit.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, let’s assume Pat is correct. What possible defensible basis is there for leaving the 6th circuit 50 percent vacant? Seven nominees for eight vacancies are up here, we have had a hearing and a committee vote on one of them. We had hoped that that 6th circuit nominee might be approved on the floor of the Senate today but she was not. Let’s just put fault aside. How can you argue that it’s appropriate to leave the 6th circuit 50 percent vacant any longer when seven nominees, two of the nominees of a year ago were for the 6th circuit not even a hearing?

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Leahy, when you put together calendars for your hearings, because you say you have been scheduling hearings regularly began scheduling them right after why you took over as chairman, does the calendar respond in part to the need in various circuits in appellate districts around the country?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: We’re trying very hard. There are a whole lot of areas where there is a judicial emergency and the district courts for example, and the President is not sending any names.

RAY SUAREZ: And tell people what a judicial emergency is.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: The judicial emergency is that there has been a vacancy so long, the court load is so high that they announce it as a judicial emergency and must have more judges. Those I would look at very, very quickly. We are moving, again, we’re moving so much faster. But it’s a little bit difficult for me hearing about the 6th circuit where President Clinton had nominees who were never even heard and circuit after circuit.

The District of Columbia Circuit and others the Republicans refused to even have hearings for President Clinton’s nominees. It’s sort of like an arsonist who burns down a house and then says to everybody why don’t we have better housing in this community, we have a lack of housing, why didn’t somebody build more houses? Well we’re trying to, trying to and I brought down the vacancy level completely. When I came in the Senate — or came as chairman, there were around 110 vacancies. Approximately another 30 or 40 more vacancies occurred almost at once from resignations or whatnot. I brought that down into the 80s.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me get a quick reply from Senator McConnell before we go. Senator, you hear him saying he’s going a pretty good job; do you expect the logjam to break in the next couple of months – briefly please?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think what I heard the Chairman saying is that he may have ideological objections to some of the nominees, and I think my answer is that — let’s have a hearing and ask them about their views and size them up.

These are eight nominees, outstanding nominees with great ABA ratings sitting there a year today with no hearing. I think the best way to make a decision whether one is somehow inappropriately too far to the right or left is to have a hearing and hear from them. I hope we’ll be doing that and there is still a chance to have a great record on confirmation of circuit judges before the year is out and I hope the chairman will do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Senators, thank you both, very much.