When Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked the nomination of an Oklahoma federal judge to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the story line quickly became tangled in the somewhat messy ways of Congress, as both sides exchanged bitter words over what Senators were supposed to do in an election year.
The basics are simple – Senate Republicans filibustered federal judge Robert Bacharach of Oklahoma for a spot on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals; the vote was 56-34, as 60 votes were needed to force final action.
Democrats slammed GOP Senators for blocking the nomination, accusing Republicans of doing all they can to frustrate the work of President Obama.
Sounds straightforward, right?
Well, that’s when we get into the tangled web of judicial nominations and election years in the U.S. Senate.
Republicans cried foul at the effort by Democrats to push through Bacharach’s nomination – even though he was seen as non-controversial – because of the timing in a Presidential election year.
GOP Senators pointed to a 1992 agreement among Senators to stop the confirmation of appeals court judges during the re-election run of President George H.W. Bush – basically, no one gets approved to the appellate courts with less than six months until Election Day.
And right now, we are certainly inside that six month time frame.
“If we have a twenty year precedent that was put in there by the Democrats and Republicans alike, I really wouldn’t want to be the one that breaks that precedent,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who admitted it was frustrating to watch his home state judge be blocked by his own party.
“I cannot vote against this guy, but I sure can vote ‘Present,'” said Inhofe.
Back in 2000, Inhofe led the GOP charge against late nominees from the Clinton Administration, except the Oklahoma Republican back then tried to block all nominees, not just judicial selections.
The precedent that Republicans were referring to has a name – the “Leahy-Thurmond Rule,” named for current Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC).
But while both parties have a name associated with the action of blocking circuit court nominees in an election year, this argument is like listening to a husband and wife battle it out, because neither side thinks the rule always applies when the other does.
In other words, you are unfairly blocking my nominees, while I (of course) never wrongly block your nominees.
The story is that the Leahy-Thurmond rule really originated back when Thurmond was blocking a nominee of President Lyndon Johnson, but while both parties have embraced these tactics at times, they have also denounced them, and the time limit has changed here and there as well.
It was yet another example of how sometimes a story looks so simple, but the political explanation is much more murky.