Senate GOP Still Fighting A War On Smart Judges

Ninth Circuit Nominee Paul Watford

Two years ago, President Obama nominated Goodwin Liu (now Justice Goodwin Liu on the California Supreme Court) to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Liu immediately stood out among the president’s nominees — and indeed, from most of the judges currently serving on the federal bench — for his brilliance and impeccable legal credentials. He is a former clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the top constitutional scholars in the nation, and he enjoyed wide support from all corners of the legal community. Clinton inquisitor Ken Starr called Liu an “extraordinarily qualified nominee” who will serve as a judge “with great distinction.” Torture memo author John Yoo called him a “very well qualified” nominee who will be a “good judge on the bench.”

Senate Republicans immediately started distorting his record, and they eventually filibustered his nomination into oblivion.

About a year later, we saw this same charade play out again. President Obama nominated Caitlin Halligan to serve as a federal appellate judge in DC. Like Liu, Halligan is an absolutely brilliant legal mind and a former Supreme Court law clerk. Unlike Liu, however, she did not have a paper trial because she has never been a law professor and spent her career advocating on behalf of her client’s views rather than expressing her own. Nevertheless, Senate Republicans filibustered her, relying on the thin argument that she is unconfirmable because she once represented a client whose views disagree with those of the NRA.

So when President Obama nominated former Supreme Court law clerk Paul Watford to a federal judgeship last October, ThinkProgress worried that he too would prove too qualified to be confirmed. Sadly, our fears seem justified. Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee cast an entirely party-line vote to advance Watford to the full Senate — an action which, in the past, has proceeded a GOP filibuster. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was given the unfortunate task of devising a flimsy rationale for opposing the nomination:

I have substantive concerns regarding Mr. Watford’s views on both immigration and the death penalty.

Mr. Watford partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) in two cases to oppose Arizona’s 2010 immigration bill. In the first case, Friendly House, a class-action lawsuit, Mr. Watford served as co-counsel for most of the plaintiffs, including the class action representative, Friendly House. . . .

With regard to the death penalty, Mr. Watford assisted in submitting an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Baze v. Rees on behalf of a number of groups who opposed Kentucky’s three-drug lethal injection protocol. In its plurality opinion, the Court rejected the arguments raised in the brief. Ultimately, Kentucky’s three drug protocol was upheld 7-2.

So there you go. In a legal career that stretches nearly two decades, Watford worked for two clients that Grassley disagrees with, and this fact evermore disqualifies him for a seat on the federal courts.

It’s impossible to describe how dangerous this standard is. Our system of law depends on all parties having adequate representation to assert their legal claims, and this is doubly true with respect to the kind of disadvantaged clients who stand against conservatives’ preferred legal outcomes. Grassley is sending a clear and unambiguous message to the entire legal profession here — if you want to be a judge some day, don’t even think about working for the poor, for immigrants, for unions or for criminal defendants. Sadly, many bright and ambitious attorneys will hear that message loud and clear, and will remain in corporate law firms representing well-moneyed clients who will be just fine with or without their services.

Ultimately, however, it’s likely that Grassley’s real motivations are slightly different. Like Liu and Halligan before him, Watford is guilty of being the kind of exceptionally talented attorney who could be on the Supreme Court some day — and so the Senate GOP appears poised to block him even if they can’t think of a plausible reason to do so.