Tradition grants U.S. senators great influence over presidential judicial nominations from their home state. But as hyper-partisanship has come to dominate Washington, such customs are falling by the wayside.
Both Democrats and Republicans in recent decades have become far more active in slowing down or blocking the majority party’s attempts to fill federal judicial vacancies. As Senate majority leader, Harry Reid famously limited the filibuster in an effort to more easily move Barack Obama’s judicial selections through the process. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has begun to simply ignore advice from senators representing blue states when it comes to such vacancies. In February, for instance, the Republican Senate approved Eric D. Miller to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of both the senators representing his home state of Washington. It was the first time this had happened, Roll Call reported, since at least 1956.
Enter Nevada Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, both Democrats. A few weeks back, they announced their intention to form a panel to vet potential federal judicial nominees from Nevada. The goal, they said, was to ensure the state had federal judges who “are qualified, independent and selected through a nonpartisan process.” A noble goal, although a cynic might see it as an attempt by two minority members to preserve a modicum of their power to influence the current administration’s judicial selections.
At any rate, the plan was well-received. Carl Tobias, a former UNLV law professor now teaching at the University of Richmond, called it a “great idea. A lot of other senators in both parties from other states have done that.”
On Sunday, the duo announced the makeup of the panel and — lo and behold — several of the 10 participants have Democratic ties.
The two biggest names are Frankie Sue Del Papa, a former Democratic Nevada attorney general, and Barbara Buckley, who served as a Democratic lawmaker in Carson City for 17 years, the last four as Assembly speaker. Also on board is William Maupin, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who was first appointed to the bench by a Democratic governor, and Matthew Sharp, an attorney from Reno who has been active in trial bar politics. Other members of the commission include Zelalem Bogale, an attorney for the university system and a registered Democrat, and Marisa Rodriguez, president of the Latino Bar Association of Las Vegas.
All of these people may be qualified for the task at hand. But if Sens. Cortez Masto and Rosen believe they’re creating a “nonpartisan process,” perhaps they might want to double-check the meaning of the word. In fact, the two senators have largely answered the question of whether an independent panel will actually depoliticize the process or simply distill and synthesize the inherent politics involved.