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Sen. Hatch Eyes Changing Judiciary Policy

January 23, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ With Republicans in charge and President Bush calling for quick action on his judicial choices, Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch says he will make it harder for Democratic senators to block home state nominees for federal judgeships.

At issue is the so-called ``blue slip″ tradition, referring to blue-colored approval papers that senators are asked to submit on nominees to fill vacant federal judgeships in their state. For the last few years, both home-state senators had to submit a positive blue slip for a nominee to be even considered by the Judiciary Committee.

But Republicans now fear Democratic senators will use negative blue slips to block Bush nominees. There are Democratic senators in 31 states who could end a nominee’s chance by just submitting a negative form.

Under Hatch’s plan, a single negative blue slip from a senator won’t be enough to stop a Bush nominee, something that former Democratic Judiciary Chairmen Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Joseph Biden of Delaware did as well. Fourteen states have sent one Democrat each to the Senate.

``I’ll give great weight to negative blue slips, but you can’t have one senator holding up, for instance, circuit nominees,″ said Hatch, R-Utah.

``We’re going to follow the Kennedy-Biden-Hatch policy, which basically says that blue slips will be given great weight but they’re not dispositive. That’s the way it should be,″ Hatch said.

Republicans are trying to move fast on Bush’s nominees, scheduling votes and confirmation hearings for at least three Appeals Court nominees in the next two weeks. The first one expected to get a vote is Miguel Estrada, nominated for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which has often been a stepping stone to a Supreme Court appointment.

Democrats, however, are expected to fight Hatch’s proposal, which would limit them to filibusters if they want to block Bush nominations. Republicans hold a 50-48-1 advantage in the Senate, with independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont usually voting with the Democrats.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s top Democrat, said Hatch was changing his own precedent.

``During the Clinton administration, he would not allow a nomination to move forward unless he had both blue slips,″ Leahy said. ``To do differently during the Bush administration would be inconsistent.″

Republican and Democratic senators have fought this battle before.

When Democrats controlled the Senate during the tenures of Republican Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, they allowed judicial nominees to move forward if just one senator from a state submitted a positive blue slip.

After Republicans won control of the Senate in 1994, Democrats say Hatch refused to move a nomination from Democratic President Clinton unless he had positive blue slip approvals from both senators. Former GOP Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina used the tactic to block all of Clinton’s court nominees from his state.

But in 2001, when George W. Bush took office, Hatch proposed dropping the requirement down to one blue slip. The suggestion so infuriated Democrats that they delayed nomination hearings for almost six months and even walked out on a Judiciary Committee voting session. That proposal became moot when Jeffords left the Republican Party and gave Democrats control of the Senate.

As Judiciary chairman, Leahy said he was following Hatch’s lead in allowing a single negative blue slip to keep nominees from being considered by the committee.

Republicans say Democrats shouldn’t have such veto power over the president’s choices.

``I think that when a negative blue slip is sent back, I think Sen. Hatch is going to give it great weight but I’m not sure that he’s prepared to say that a single senator can unilaterally block every single nomination in that state, certainly not circuit judge nominees,″ said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the only senator on the committee to go through the judicial nomination process.

But if Hatch ``now intends to follow different standards for President Bush’s nominees than he did for President Clinton’s nominees, the stark change unavoidably is going to have the appearance of playing partisan politics with the independent federal judiciary,″ said Leahy spokesman David Carle.


On the Net:

Senate Judiciary Committee: http://judiciary.senate.gov

Justice Department blue slip status records: http://www.usdoj.gov/olp/blueslips1.htm

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