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Blackmailed Onto the Court | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Blackmailed Onto the Court

Thanks to the compromise agreement made possible by seven Democrats who collaborated with Republicans to end the Senate impasse over judicial nominations, Priscilla Owen will now join the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Four years of successful efforts by civil rights, women's rights, religious and consumer groups to prevent confirmation of the right-wing extremist were undone Wednesday, as the Senate voted 56-43 to confirm a nominee whose judicial activism on the Texas Supreme Court was so wreckless that another member of that court, Alberto Gonzalez, who now serves as the nation's attorney general, referred to her actions as "unconscionable."

The final vote broke along partisan lines. Fifty-three Republicans and two Democrat, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and West Virginia's Robert Byrd, voted to confirm Owen. Forty-one Democrats, one Republican, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, and one Independent, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, voted against confirmation.

Those numbers are significant because they show that Democrats had the 40 votes that were needed to sustain a filibuster against Owen.

That means that, had Democrats held firm and forced moderate Republicans to reject the unpopular "nuclear option" that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, was attempting to impose on the Senate, Owen might very well have been kept off the court. National polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed the "nuclear option," which Frist hoped to use to bar filibusters of even the most objectionable of the Bush administration's nominees. A number of moderate Republicans had indicated that they were uncomfortable with the majority leader's scheme to rewrite Senate rules, and there was at least a reasonable chance that a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans could have preserved the ability of the minority party to block extremist nominees. Unfortunately, in return for the agreement to put the "nuclear option" on hold, seven moderate Democrats agreed to allow confirmation votes on at least three blocked appeals court nominees.

Owen's confirmation on Wednesday represents the first of what are likely to be many confirmations of extreme, unqualified and ethically-dubious nominees for seats on appeals court benches that have traditionally been the last hope of low-income Americans, people of color and women for justice. Equal justice concerns are of particular significance in the case of the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and is home to the highest percentage of minority residents of any circuit in the country. Yet, with the compromise agreement on the "nuclear option," most Senate Democrats abandoned the filibuster and cleared the way for Owen -- whose nomination was opposed by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches -- to take her place on that bench.

As disappointing as the collapse of conscience on the part of most Democrats has been, however, it is important to remember that 18 members of the opposition caucus held firm against the compromise of principles. Those senators -- Democrats Joe Biden of Delaware, Barbara Boxer of California, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Carl Levin of Michigan, Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas, Patty Murray of Washington, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Jeffords -- refused to vote for the cloture motion that shut down the filibuster option and cleared the way for Owen's confirmation.

Feingold was blunt in his dismissal of claims that the deal that has put Owen on the appeals court represented a legitimate compromise. "There was no effort to reach a real compromise that would take into account the concerns of all parties. A compromise at the point of a gun is not a compromise. That, I'm afraid, is what we had," explained the Judiciary Committee member.

"I strongly opposed the threat of the nuclear option," he said. "I believe this was an illegitimate tactic, a partisan abuse of power that was a threat to the Senate as an institution and to the country. Attempting to blackmail the minority into giving up the rights that have been part of the Senate's traditions and practices for centuries was a new low for a majority that has repeatedly been willing to put party over principle. Unfortunately, the blackmail was partially successful. The end result is that (Owen and other) nominees who don't deserve lifetime appointments to the judiciary will now be confirmed."

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