On April 14, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) recommended candidates to fill two upcoming District Court vacancies here in his home state of Iowa. If President Obama takes the Senator’s suggestions, he’ll nominate Magistrate Judge Leonard Strand for an opening on the Northern District of Iowa, and state district Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger for the Southern District. The nominations will then go to the Senate Judiciary Committee to begin a lengthy confirmation process where, if recent history is any guide, they’ll collide with one of their biggest obstacles to confirmation: the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley.
Article II of the Constitution reserves an important “advice and consent” role for the Senate in confirming the president’s judicial nominees. These are lifetime appointments, with the power to invalidate actions of the political branches. Under our thoughtfully designed system of checks and balances, it makes sense that neither the legislative nor executive should have exclusive control over staffing the judiciary.
As chair of the Judiciary Committee, Grassley wields enormous influence on the confirmation process. He sets the agenda for the committee, and is responsible for scheduling hearings and votes on pending nominees. Potential judges can’t proceed to a Senate floor vote until they’ve been vetted by the committee.
Unfortunately, Grassley and his Republican Senate colleagues have enthusiastically embraced the “check” portion of that famous formula, and don’t seem particularly concerned about “balance.” On the day Grassley announced his recommendations, the Senate held its first vote on a judicial nomination, three months after the Republican majority took over in January, unanimously confirming Alfred H. Bennett to a vacancy in the Southern District of Texas. On April 20, the Senate held a second vote, confirming George C. Hanks, Jr. As former Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy noted after the first vote, by April of 2007 the Democratically controlled Senate had confirmed 15 of then-President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. (In fairness to Grassley, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is responsible for scheduling confirmation votes on the Senate floor.)