The Republican drive to confirm federal judges has gained momentum from a series of actions by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They seem modest but are likely to speed up the confirmation of both appeals and district court judges—conservatives, for the most part.
Democrats won’t be pleased. The steps McConnell has taken in recent weeks are aimed at thwarting their efforts to block, sideline, or delay President Trump’s nominees.
Here’s what McConnell has done:
- Confirming judicial nominees has been elevated to a top priority in the Senate. “I decide the priority,” McConnell said in an interview. “Priority between an assistant secretary of State and a conservative court judge—it’s not a hard choice to make.”
- And when nominees “come out of committee, I guarantee they will be dealt with,” McConnell said. “Regardless of what tactics are used by Democrats, the judges are going to be confirmed.”
- No longer will “blue slips” be allowed to deny a nominee a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and vote on confirmation. In the past, senators have sometimes barred a nominee from their state by refusing to return their slip to the committee, thus preventing a hearing and confirmation.
- “The majority”—that is, Republicans—will treat a blue slip “as simply notification of how you’re going to vote, not as an opportunity to blackball,” McConnell told me. The use of blue slips, he noted, is not a Senate rule and has “been honored in the breach over the years.” Now it won’t be honored at all.
- The so-called “30 hours rule”—which provides for 30 hours of debate on a nominee—won’t be overturned. But McConnell vowed to set aside time for these debates. And he can make this happen because he sets the Senate schedule.
The majority leader has been under pressure recently from conservative groups to get more court nominees approved by the Judiciary Committee—and more rapidly—and sent to the Senate floor. McConnell had long prodded the committee to increase the number of hearings, then report the nominees out as quickly as possible for Senate floor votes.
In other words, McConnell is going to blow up Senate rules and traditions and allow Trump to pack America's courts with lifetime appointments that will tilt the country into wingnut territory for decades, and it doesn't look like Democrats will be able to do anything to stop him.
The death of the "blue slip", the unspoken rule that both senators of a state needed to sign off on any judicial appointment, means states with split Senate delegations like Ohio, Florida, and Illinois could de facto block a party lackey from a term that could last 40 years or more, and both parties enforced it.
McConnell has already engineered the theft of a Supreme Court seat, and now he is looking to do the same with a third of the federal district and appellate judiciary. It would essentially mean the end of the Civil Rights era in a disturbingly large section of the country, and allow Trump to appoint judges who in turn would move to sign off on all his executive branch excesses.
It's the classic path to dictatorship, and we're careening down it at breakneck speed. It's now a race to see whether Mueller can stop Trump before the GOP puts the framework for a semi-permanent dictatorship in place.
This is where America is in 2017.