Veterans Group Declares War on Arcane Senate Rule

Organization targets tradition that allows a single senator to block judicial nominations

A veterans organization has set its sights on an arcane Senate custom that allows a single senator to indefinitely block a judicial nominee from his home state.

It is the latest front in a struggle to break a logjam that has slowed President Donald Trump’s nominees. The campaign includes an online ad campaign by a coalition of organizations that includes a veterans group called the Concerns Veterans for America.

But officials from Concerned Veterans for America said the new effort will focus on grassroots organizing, education, and other strategies to connect activists to the issue.

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“Our country is facing a judicial crisis,” Concerned Veterans for America Executive Director Mark Lucas said in a prepared statement. “With over 100 vacancies in courts across the country, America’s judiciary isn’t fully functioning, and people can’t access the justice guaranteed to them by the Constitution. President Trump is doing his part to swiftly select qualified nominees who will respect the rule of law, but the process is being held up by Democrats in Senate who are playing political games.”

For decades, the Senate has granted great deference to individual members through a process know as the “blue slip.” Both senators from a nominee’s state are sent blue pieces of paper, on which they are supposed to give a favorable or unfavorable recommendation to the Senate Judiciary Committee. But a senator can hold up a nomination by refusing to return the blue slip at all.

“The blue slip process is obscure. And it is arcane. But on a fundamental level, people understand what is happening. Some Democrats are holding up these nominations.”

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Rebecca Coffman, a spokeswoman for the organization, pointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras, the president’s pick to fill a vacancy on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Trump nominated him on May 8. But he has yet to receive a hearing nearly four months later because Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have not returned their blue slips.

No one has voiced serious objections to Stras, a well-regarded jurist who has served on Minnesota’s highest court since 2010. Yet he is one of 30 district and circuit court nominees awaiting a confirmation vote. The Judiciary Committee has forwarded only three. In all, there are 141 vacancies on the federal bench.

Both Minnesota senators last week denied that they are holding up the nomination. Klobuchar told Minnesota Public Radio News on Thursday that she has met with Stras once and plans to meet again before deciding whether to allow the nomination to proceed.

A spokesman for Franken told the Associated Press that the senator is still reviewing Stras’ “lengthy record” and faulted Trump failing to consult with his office about possible candidates.

“Rather than discuss how senators traditionally approached circuit court vacancies or talk about a range of potential candidates, the White House made clear its intention to nominate Justice Stras from the outset,” Franken spokesman Michael Dale-Stein told the Associated Press.

Unlike practices such as the filibuster, which would require a formal rule change to alter the procedure, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) could simply decide to move a nomination regardless of whether home state senators have approved. A spokesman Grassley declined to comment on the blue-slip process. But the senator told C-SPAN in May that withholding blue slips might not automatically block a judicial nomination.

“I think the blue slip is more respected for district court judges historically than it has been for circuit,” he said. “It’s much more a White House decision on circuit judges than the district court judges. I mean, this is going to be an individual case-by-case decision, but it leads me to say that there’s going to have to be a less strict use or obligation to the blue-slip policy for circuit, because that’s the way it’s been.”

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Coffman, of Concerned Veterans for America, said her organization is proud of the role it played in helping to win confirmation for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. But she said the lower-court judges are more important in many ways.

“Most people aren’t going to interact with the Supreme Court,” she said. “They’re going to interact with these lower courts.”

One challenge is that it is hard to captivate people’s attention for the cases that judicial slots below the Supreme Court tend to hear.

“The blue-slip process is obscure,” Coffman said. “And it is arcane. But on a fundamental level, people understand what is happening. Some Democrats are holding up these nominations.”

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