Toomey presses to get Pa. judicial nominees fast-tracked for vote
May 12, 2016 8:27 AM
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has been part of a partisan effort to block Merrick Garland’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination, but when it comes to courts back home, he’s urging confirmation.
His effort on the Senate floor Wednesday to get a vote on two Western Pennsylvania federal court nominees was quickly shot down and drew immediate accusations of hypocrisy from opponents who have denounced the GOP refusal to even hold a hearing on President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February.
Mr. Toomey’s proposal was blocked by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who wants a vote on all federal judges who have cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, not just Pennsylvania’s.
Just a day earlier U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., asked for the Senate’s unanimous consent to consider all 11 federal district judges awaiting confirmation. Mr. Casey’s effort was blocked by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said Republicans are giving better treatment to the president’s second-term nominees than Democrats gave to President George W. Bush’s.
Mr. Toomey said that’s a valid point but that it’s important now to move ahead on confirming Judge Marilyn J. Horan for the Western District of Pennsylvania’s courthouse in Pittsburgh and Judge Susan Paradise Baxter for the district’s courthouse in Erie.
As he faces re-election, he seems to be working to appease voters back home without pushing back too much against party leadership in Washington, but some Democrats saw Wednesday’s effort as transparent pandering.
“Pat Toomey must be the only one who can’t see the blatant hypocrisy,” said Sabrina Singh, spokeswoman for Katie McGinty, the Democrat running for his seat in November. “Sen. Toomey has outright refused to do his job on Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and has previously held up other nominations for Pennsylvania judges. Toomey should hold off on the political speeches and get to work.”
Mr. Toomey said there is currently no federal judge in the Erie courthouse. That means litigants have to travel to either Pittsburgh or Johnstown.
Although eight other nominees cleared the Judiciary Committee before them, Judges Horan and Baxter should jump the line because the Western Pennsylvania judgeships have been vacant the longest — more than three years, Mr. Toomey said.
Glenn Sugameli, a lawyer and activist who tracks court vacancies, said Mr. Toomey is cherry-picking nominees even though he knows the full Senate would never agree to take them up out of order.
“It’s a political stunt that certainly appears to be for optics,” Mr. Sugameli said. “Objectively, he must have known that this would not work. If he had been serious he could have joined Sen. Casey on the floor the day before.”
Toomey spokesperson E.R. Anderson said late Wednesday that there is a difference between the Supreme Court nomination and other nominations. ”As Sen. Toomey has said, the long-term ideological balance of the nation’s highest court is at stake with the Garland nomination, and we have an election right around the corner. He therefore believes it is sensible to allow the American people to directly participate in this important issue at the ballot box this November. As for district court picks, the confirmation of Horan and Baxter would not have a lasting, fundamental impact on the partisan balance of our federal judicial system. These nominees are also from different parties and have broad, bipartisan support, and they would fill vacancies that have been open for years. Sen. Toomey believes that Senate confirmation of these district court nominees is something where both sides should be able to find common ground, and he will continue fighting on their behalf.”
On the Senate floor earlier in the day, Mr. Toomey expressed frustration.
“We’re at an impasse here,” he said during a brief debate with Sen. Whitehouse.
“We have our colleagues on the other side saying let’s have all 11 judges confirmed,” Mr. Toomey said. “How about we try a step in the right direction? How about we vote on these two? Two judges. The two who would fill the vacancies that have been vacant the longest. … This would be progress if we could simply agree to have a vote on these two nominees and then let’s see where we go from there.”
Mr. Whitehouse said he wants to vote on all the nominees in the order they cleared the Judiciary Committee. (A Rhode Island judge is eighth on the list, and Pennsylvania’s nominees are Nos. 9 and 10.)
He said Republicans created any impasse and it needs to be resolved by them.
“The question should not be viewed only as to whether the president is being treated fairly,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “We have a duty of fairness to the constituents not to have empty seats in courtrooms, and we have a duty of fairness to the candidates — the nominees — who have put their lives on hold with the expectation that they would be treated fairly by the United States Senate.”
Later Wednesday Mr. McConnell said he would hold a vote soon on Paula Xinis, nominee to the U.S. District Court of Maryland, the first of the 11 to clear the Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Toomey’s floor speech came the same day Quinnipiac University released a poll of Pennsylvania voters showing 54 percent want the Senate to vote on Judge Garland’s confirmation. His stance in joining fellow Republicans in refusing even to hold a hearing for Judge Garland is a decision that has 30 percent of voters saying they would be less likely to vote for him in November, according to the Quinnipiac poll; 18 percent said they were more likely to support Mr. Toomey over the issue; and 51 percent of Pennsylvania voters said it would not affect their vote.
For over a year, Democrats and judicial activists have been accusing Mr. Toomey of blocking nominations to retaliate against Mr. Obama for using executive orders and to keep him from scoring political wins as he leaves the White House. Mr. Toomey has denied the accusations.
Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo’s nomination to the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has been a flashpoint because Mr. Toomey waited several months to submit a “blue slip” signaling his consent, as home-state senator, to have the Judiciary Committee vote. He said he was only waiting for the committee to finish vetting Judge Restrepo.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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