Hoyer turns to Reid for help on judges

Anne Wernikoff

CAMBRIDGE, Md. – Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) spoke with the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about hastening the approval of President Obama's judicial nominees, the Maryland Democrat revealed.

Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, has joined the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in voicing concerns that upper-chamber procedures – which effectively allow a single home-state senator to block court nominees – have been abused by Republicans, thereby preventing qualified African Americans from reaching the federal bench.

Hoyer said he spoke recently with Reid Chief of Staff David Krone about the controversial "blue slip" process in hopes that Senate Democratic leaders can find a way to get those nominees appointed.

"I [am] in agreement with the Congressional Black Caucus … [that] we need diversity on our bench and that the problem in the United States Senate was with deferring to each senator in each state," Hoyer said Wednesday at a press briefing during the Democrats' annual retreat on the Eastern Shore.

"I had an opportunity to talk briefly with Mr. Krone, Senator Reid's chief of staff, who asked me about my sentiment, and I said that."

At issue is the so-called "blue-slip" system, a procedure adopted by the Senate Judiciary Committee designed to allow senators a voice in the process of appointing federal judges in their home states. Under that system, home-state senators are asked to submit a "blue slip" on nominees before the Judiciary panel stages a hearing – a signal of support for a nominee's consideration, though not necessarily a commitment to back the nominee on the Senate floor.

The CBC has long-criticized Republicans, particularly those in some Southern states, of withholding their blue slips without just cause. In North Carolina, for instance, GOP Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) has declined to submit a blue slip for Obama's nomination of Jennifer May-Parker, an African American woman, for the federal bench, leading to an outcry from CBC members.

"Too many senators that are from various states are refusing to return the blue slip and therefore these people are just hanging out in limbo," Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat and a prominent member of the CBC, said Wednesday. "Some of them have been out there for two years."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has adhered to the blue-slip rules, though he's also warned that he might scrap them if it appears Republicans are abusing the system.

Last week, CBC leaders requested a meeting with Leahy on that very issue.

"These people would be approved if they were allowed to have a vote," Clyburn said. "We think it’s just blatantly unfair for us to have a process that will not allow the full Senate to vote on these nominations."

Separately, CBC members and Hoyer have also expressed concerns that some of Obama's Southern-state court nominees have championed discriminatory policies that should disqualify them from consideration for a life-time appointment to the federal bench. That issue, however, was not addressed by the Democrats on Wednesday.