After Success in Seating Federal Judges, Biden Hits Resistance

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Senate Democrats vow to keep pressing forward with nominees, but they may face obstacles in states represented by Republicans.

Jennifer Sung, President Biden’s nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, cleared the Judiciary Committee panel after Kamala Harris broke a tie on a vote.
Credit...Rod Lamkey Abaca Press, via Alamy

Carl Hulse

Dec. 5, 2021Updated 9:28 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — After early success in nominating and confirming federal judges, President Biden and Senate Democrats have begun to encounter stiffer Republican resistance to their efforts to reshape the courts.

Tennessee Republicans have raised objections to Mr. Biden’s pick for an influential appeals court there — the administration’s first judicial nominee from a state represented by two Republican senators — and a circuit court candidate is likely to need every Democratic vote to win confirmation in a coming floor showdown.

The obstacles threaten to slow or halt a little-noticed winning streak for the Biden administration on Capitol Hill, where the White House has set a rapid pace in filling vacancies on the federal bench, even surpassing the rate of the Trump era, when Republicans were focused almost single-mindedly on confirming judges.

In contrast to the administration’s struggle on its legislative agenda, the lower-profile judicial push has been one of the highlights of the first year of the Biden presidency. Democrats say they intend to aggressively press forward to counter the Trump judicial juggernaut of the previous four years, and they may have limited time to do so, given the possibility of losing control of the Senate in next year’s midterm elections.

“We are taking this seriously,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the Judiciary Committee chairman, who plans to advance nominees through the end of the year and beyond. “We are going to move everything we can legally move.”

Mr. Biden, a former Judiciary Committee chairman with deep expertise on the confirmation process, has sent the Senate 64 judicial nominations, including 16 appeals court picks and 46 district court nominees. That is the most at this point of any recent presidential term dating to Ronald Reagan. Twenty-eight nominees have been confirmed — nine appeals court judges and 19 district court judges.

By comparison, Mr. Trump had sent the Senate 57 judicial nominees, 13 of whom were confirmed, by mid-November 2017. At the end of four years, Mr. Trump had won confirmation of three Supreme Court justices, 54 appeals court judges and 174 district court judges.

Mr. Biden’s nominees are extraordinarily diverse in both legal background and ethnicity. The White House and liberal interest groups have been promoting public defenders and civil rights lawyers in addition to the more traditional choices of prosecutors and corporate lawyers. According to the White House, 47 of the 64 nominees are women and 41 of them identify as people of color, allowing the administration to record many firsts across the judiciary.

“The diversity is really greater than anyone could have hoped for,” said Russ Feingold, a former senator and the head of the American Constitution Society, a progressive group that has been active in recommending nominees to the White House. “People are ecstatic.”

The vast majority of the Biden nominees so far have been put forward for appeals and district court seats in states represented by two Democratic senators, in close consultation with those lawmakers, smoothing the way to confirmation. They are replacing mainly judges appointed by Democratic presidents.

“He is picking the low-hanging fruit,” said Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a longtime expert in tracking judicial nominations.

According to figures from Mr. Wheeler and the White House, 15 of Mr. Biden’s 16 appeals court nominees were for vacancies in the District of Columbia or in states represented by two Democratic senators. Forty-three of the 46 district court nominees were for seats in states represented by two Democrats or the District of Columbia. Three others were in Ohio, which is represented by a senator from each party, and received the support of the Republican, Senator Rob Portman.

But Mr. Biden will need to venture into more challenging territory if he wants to sustain his drive by producing nominees in states represented by Republicans. Most Republicans are likely to be tough sells when it comes to their home turf.

After the White House on Nov. 17 nominated Andre B. Mathis, a Memphis lawyer, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Tennessee’s two Republican senators, Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, complained that the administration had not “substantively” consulted with them on the selection. One person familiar with the process said that the two had backed an experienced Black judge with Democratic ties for the opening but that the person was passed over for Mr. Mathis, who is also Black.

“We attempted to work in good faith with the White House in identifying qualified candidates for this position, but ultimately the White House simply informed us of its choice,” the senators said in a statement.

In nominating Mr. Mathis, the White House noted he would be the first Black man from Tennessee to sit on the Sixth Circuit and the first Black nominee for the court in 24 years. Administration officials said his combination of civil and criminal experience was a plus.

“We were grateful to discuss potential candidates from the Sixth Circuit with both Tennessee senators’ offices starting several months ago, and we are enthusiastic about Andre Mathis’s historic nomination,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman.

In the past, senators’ opposition to a judicial nominee from their state would be enough to derail the confirmation. Under an arcane Judiciary Committee practice, the two senators would either return what is known as a “blue slip” — a piece of paper signifying that they had been consulted about the nomination, in line with the Constitution’s requirement for the president to seek the Senate’s “advice and consent” — or withhold it, effectively blocking the selection.

But Republicans ended that tradition during the Trump era and Democrats are unlikely to restore it, freeing the White House to go its own way if it chooses, though administration officials say they intend to confer in good faith with Republican senators.

While Republicans can slow the process and try to put up other roadblocks, changes in Senate rules mean that Democrats can advance and confirm judges with a simple majority vote. But doing so requires Democrats, who control the 50-50 Senate through Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking power, to hold together and be willing to devote floor time to a nominee.

Democrats summoned Ms. Harris last month to break a tie to allow another nominee, Jennifer Sung, to clear the Judiciary Committee after the panel deadlocked on her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Republicans criticized Ms. Sung over a blistering letter she signed in 2018 opposing the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

The letter from Yale Law School students, alumni and educators called Justice Kavanaugh an “intellectually and morally bankrupt ideologue intent on rolling back our rights and the rights of our clients.” Ms. Sung apologized for the letter during her confirmation hearing in September and conceded it was overheated. Republicans still unanimously opposed her nomination, making her the first Biden nominee to require a floor vote.

Republicans have objected to many of the president’s judicial picks, calling them too liberal and insufficiently grounded in the Constitution. But most of the nominees have drawn at least a smattering of Republican support for confirmation — though in the past, judicial candidates often did not require roll call votes at all.

Republicans have offered Mr. Biden and Democrats grudging praise for their efforts, comparing it favorably with the sluggish pace of the Democratic-held Senate in confirming judges selected by the Obama administration when Mr. Biden was vice president.

“Obviously, we made a priority of it and I think Democrats realize they missed an opportunity during the Obama administration,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a senior Republican member of the Judiciary Committee.

One reason for the shift is that Democrats are well aware they may have a limited window.

Their control of the Senate is at real risk next year, and a Republican takeover would drastically impede Mr. Biden’s ability to install judges over the final two years of his term. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and now the minority leader, showed how that could work beginning in 2015, when Republicans gained the majority and slow-walked Obama administration nominees, refusing even a hearing for a Supreme Court pick.

“They realize they might not be filling any vacancies come January 2023,” Mr. Wheeler said.

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