Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Judicial Nominations

Today we will vote on the nomination of John Michael Vazquez to fill a judicial emergency vacancy in the Federal District Court in the District of New Jersey.  His confirmation is long overdue.  He was nominated over 10 months ago and reported out of the Judiciary Committee by unanimous voice vote over 4 months ago.

Mr. Vazquez is an outstanding nominee who has experience both in private practice and in the public sector.  Since 2008, he has practiced as a named partner at the law firm of Critchley, Kinum & Vazquez in Roseland, New Jersey.  He has also devoted a significant part of his career to public service, having worked for both the Office of the Attorney General for the State of New Jersey and as a Federal prosecutor in the District of New Jersey.  During his tenure as a Federal prosecutor, Mr. Vazquez handled a wide array of Federal investigations and prosecutions while serving in the General Crimes Unit, the Major Narcotics Unit, the Terrorism Unit, and the Securities and Health Care Fraud Unit.

The ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary unanimously rated Mr. Vazquez “Well Qualified” to serve as a Federal district judge, its highest rating.  He has the support of his home state Senators, Senators Menendez and Booker.

Mr. Vazquez’s nomination reflects the enormous progress that the Senate and this administration have made in making the Federal judiciary more diverse and more representative of the citizenry it serves.  The fact that there are more women and minorities than ever before serving on our Federal bench is important.  The result of this progress is that it increases public confidence in our justice system.

Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have stalled this progress by obstructing several highly qualified Hispanic nominees.  For example, Senate Republicans delayed the confirmation of Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo, the first Hispanic judge from Pennsylvania nominated to the Third Circuit, for more than a year.  This was the case despite his excellent legal and judicial career and the strong bipartisan support he had from his home state Senators.

In addition, the junior Senator from Arkansas continues to impose a wholesale blockade on the nominees to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, including Armando Bonilla, a Cuban American who has devoted his entire career to public service at the U.S. Department of Justice.  If confirmed, Mr. Bonilla would be the first Hispanic judge to hold a seat on that court, where he is urgently needed.  The Chief Judge of the Court of Federal Claims has written to Chairman Grassley and me to express the need to confirm the pending nominees.  Yet, Senator Cotton is being allowed to hold up these well qualified nominees.

And just last week, the junior Senator from Georgia announced that he was withdrawing his support for the nomination of a Hispanic nominee to a Federal district court in Georgia.  Judge Dax López has served as a distinguished state court judge in DeKalb County, Georgia since 2010.  With his experience, I was not surprised that the Georgia Senators submitted Judge López’s name to the White House for consideration to the Federal district court.  After recommending him to the White House, it is unfortunate that the junior Senator from Georgia is now blocking his nomination because of Judge López’s membership on the Board of Directors for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.  This nonpartisan organization’s mission “is to increase civic engagement and leadership of the Latino/Hispanic community across Georgia.”  But some conservatives have focused only on the fact that the organization supported common sense immigration reform – something that a bipartisan majority of this body supported when we passed comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

I have long noted that I do not vote to confirm individuals to the bench because I expect to agree with all of their views.  My standard is whether the nominee would be the kind of independent judge who would be fair and impartial.  There is nothing in Judge López’s record to suggest that he could not or would not be an impartial judge.  Judge López has been a state court judge for nearly six years.  Those who oppose Judge López have decided that because he was on the Board of Directors of an organization that advocates certain policies with which they disagree, they refuse to even consider his record or his own merits.  This new litmus test for his membership in a nonpartisan organization sets a dangerous precedent that Senators should reject.

We also saw this unreasonable treatment from Senate Republicans with the nomination of Judge Edward Chen to the Northern District of California.  Despite having served as a Federal magistrate judge for a decade, Senate Republicans held up Judge Chen’s nomination for years because Judge Chen had previously worked for the American Civil Liberties Union.  According to one Republican Senator on the Judiciary Committee, Judge Chen had the “ACLU gene” and so somehow he could not possibly be a fair judge – even though Judge Chen had shown that he could be an independent and neutral arbiter over the 10-year period that he served as a Federal magistrate judge.  This new litmus test is completely unfair.  I am sorry that Senate Republicans have now subjected Judge López to this.

This afternoon, I hope we do not see a repeat of what happened to Judge Wilhelmina Wright, who was confirmed last week to the District Court in Minnesota with a large number of “no” votes from Republicans.  Judge Wright was the first African American woman to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court and the first person to serve on all three levels of the Minnesota state judiciary.  Yet many Republicans chose to side with the moneyed Washington interest groups who unfairly attacked her nomination based on a writing assignment from her third-year of law school.  That a Washington political action committee is opposing a nominee should not prevent Senators from exercising their own fair judgment.  The resource needs of our independent judiciary should not be tainted by calls for a shutdown of our constitutional role as Senators.  I urge my fellow Senators to vote to confirm Judge Vazquez.

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