Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) announced yesterday that he intended to bring the first of several controversial Bush nominees for the federal judiciary to the Senate floor for a vote after passage of a transportation funding bill this week. Democrats have threatened to filibuster several judicial nominees waiting for a full Senate vote, at which point Senator Frist has said he will employ the so-called “nuclear option.” The nuclear option would change the rules of the Senate to prevent filibusters on judicial nominees – including Supreme Court nominees – by requiring only a simple 51-vote majority to close debate and move to a vote on the judges. Present rules require 60 votes to close the debate.
In an attempt to “work toward saving this institution,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said that Democrats would be willing to give up on any one of the five upcoming controversial judicial nominees, according to the LA Times. Reid has already said that Democrats would not attempt to filibuster Thomas B. Griffith, Bush’s nominee for the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, despite the fact that Griffith is a staunch opponent of Title IX, the landmark federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the number 2 Republican in the Senate, has said that Republicans will reject any compromise that does not allow all blocked nominees an up-or-down vote, according to the New York Times. One of the nominees opposed by Democrats is Priscilla Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice whose dissenting opinion in a case involving a minor who wished to obtain a judicial bypass for an abortion was called “an unconscionable act of judicial activism” by none other than President Bush’s Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales.
“This fight is not about the seven radical nominations,” said Reid, according to the LA Times. It’s about clearing the way for a Supreme Court nominee who only needs 51 votes, not 60,” in order to be confirmed by the Senate. Even many on the right believe this is a dangerous move. Norman Orenstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank, told the Washington Post, “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if they do this, sooner rather than later…we will head down the slippery slope, probably first for executive nominations and then legislation….It erodes the Senate as an institution, but also clearly makes Congress less significant.”
“If President Bush is able to pack the Supreme Court with extreme right-wing justices, women stand to lose the gains of the last 40 years, especially our right to reproductive choice and our hard-won protections against sex discrimination,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority.