A staunch ally of President Trump will soon wield the gavel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Democrats are worried they will have little power to act as the first line of defense when the panel considers judicial nominees.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the committee’s most senior Republican member, is expected to take over as chairman after lawmakers convene for the 116th Congress in early January. He will succeed Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has made judicial confirmations the panel’s main focus during his tenure, drawing criticism from opponents for how quickly he moved nominees to the floor.
Democrats on the committee such as Sens. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) want to see changes under Graham’s leadership, chief among them the restoration of what’s known as the blue-slip rule.
The slips are actual blue pieces of paper that senators are asked to submit if they’re OK with a judicial nominee from their state who is under consideration by the Judiciary Committee. Declining to submit a blue slip has traditionally been a way for senators to object to a nominee.
Grassley, however, viewed blue slips as a courtesy, not a hard-and-fast rule, and refused to allow them to be used as a Democratic tool to block Trump’s circuit court nominees.
While he was less likely to hold a hearing if blue slips were missing for district court nominees, Grassley forged ahead with confirmations of appeals court judges for whom blue slips were not returned.
“The reason for this distinction is simple: Circuit courts cover multiple states,” he said in a March op-ed in Law360. “There is less reason to defer to a single senator’s opinion on a circuit court nominee when the judge’s decisions will impact residents of multiple states.”
Hirono told The Hill she hopes Graham will go back to adhering to the blue slip process.
“That’s one procedural thing that I would want him to adhere to,” she said.
But Graham told The Hill he plans to maintain the status quo established by Grassley.
“I’ll probably continue the policies of Sen. Grassley regarding circuit courts,” he said. “When it comes to district courts, the blue slip process, I think, would be honored.”
Grassley said earlier this month that the committee helped confirm 30 circuit court judges in the first two years of the Trump presidency and will continue to make judicial confirmations a priority in the next Congress under Graham’s leadership.
Grassley advanced several controversial nominees to the floor, including Steven Grasz and Jonathan Kobes to be judges on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Both were rated as “not qualified” by the American Bar Association.
The ratio of Republicans to Democrats on the committee is expected to remain 11-10 in the new Congress. In the full Senate, Republicans will expand their 51-49 majority to 53-47, giving them more room to lose a few GOP senators during confirmation votes.
Beyond blue slips, Democrats say there are other ways to empower all committee members during the confirmation process for judges.
In particular, Hirono said she hopes Graham will refrain from holding hearings with more than one circuit court nominee at a time or meeting when the Senate is in recess — two approaches Grassley has used as chairman.
On several occasions, Grassley held hearings with two circuit court nominees at once, and in October he held two nomination hearings while the Senate was in recess. He argued that the hearings were on members’ calendars well before the recess was announced.
On the policy front, Whitehouse said he hopes Graham focuses a bit more on the cybersecurity issues that have been a bigger part of the Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee that Graham has led during the 115th Congress.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), meanwhile, said he wants the committee to focus on protecting privacy and go after interference election interference.
“I’ve worked with Sen. Graham for example on the red flag statute as gun violence prevention,” he said. “He has a mind of his own, but he’s very collegial.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the committee, said it certainly won’t be boring with Graham at the helm.
“He’s obviously got some interesting topics that we haven’t really vetted while Chairman Grassley’s been in,” Cornyn said.
But judicial advocates doubt Graham has the temperament to lead a committee that’s in charge of judicial confirmations, as well as oversight of the Department of Justice and FBI.
Nan Aron, the founder and president of Alliance for Justice, said Graham’s outburst during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh raised serious questions about his ability to run the committee in an even-handed or professional manner.
During the confirmation hearings, Graham made headlines when he exploded on Democrats, accusing them of trying to destroy Kavanaugh’s life after an allegation surfaced that he engaged in sexual assault when he was in high school.
Graham’s spokesman, Kevin Bishop, dismissed the criticism, saying it’s no surprise that a liberal interest group would oppose Graham as chairman.
“Senator Graham has compiled a long career in support of the Right to Life, the Second Amendment and the confirmation of Justices like Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch,” he said in a statement. “He has repeatedly made it clear he plans to continue confirming conservative judges to the federal bench if he’s chosen to serve as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
Aron said those kinds of positions make her pessimistic that things will change if Graham becomes chairman, as expected.
“We can always hope the committee decides to correct course and do better, but frankly I don’t think there’s a chance that that will take place,” she said. “With an administration that has almost nothing to show for legislative accomplishments, packing the courts is their one priority that they’re intent on implementing and to that end, Lindsey Graham has been a faithful, loyal, co-conspirator in rubber-stamping judicial nominees whose qualifications are questionable.”