06.08.16

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Partisan Attacks of the Independent Judiciary

Many Senators have appropriately condemned the racist comments recently made by the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee about Judge Curiel. And sadly, his baseless allegations come as no surprise – as we have seen for months that personal insults are the calling card of the Republican standard bearer. But anyone seeking the highest office in this great nation must understand the fundamental role that judges play in our democracy. The rule of law protects all of us, but only when administered by an independent judiciary.

I am deeply troubled by this attack on a sitting Federal judge. But make no mistake – it is not the first, nor will it be the last Republican attack on the independence of our Federal judiciary. This may be the most extreme example but it is just the latest in a series of Republican actions that seek to undermine and compromise a coequal branch.

For more than seven years, Senate Republicans have tried to block judicial nominations through stalling and delaying, and even distorting the records of the men and women nominated to serve on the Federal bench. This systematic obstruction has impacted courts across the country, ultimately harming the American people who are seeking justice in them. Judicial vacancies have soared under Republican leadership, even though dozens of nominations with bipartisan support have languished on the Senate floor.

And then earlier this year, Senate Republicans took their obstruction one unprecedented step further. Within hours of the news of Justice Scalia’s passing, the Republican Leader declared his unilateral refusal to allow anyone to be confirmed to the Supreme Court until the following year, even though it was only February. That was an extraordinary partisan decision without precedent in the United States Senate.

Since confirmation hearings began a century ago, never has the Senate denied a Supreme Court nominee a hearing. Recently, two law professors extensively analyzed the history of the Supreme Court, and concluded that there is no historical precedent for the Republicans’ refusal to consider Chief Judge Garland’s nomination. In fact, according to the report, there have been 103 prior times in history when an elected President has filled a Supreme Court vacancy prior to the election of the next President – with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Republicans’ unprecedented obstruction – and I quote here – “threatens to damage the appointments process in the future and risks significant harm to the Court.” Senate Republicans have chosen to put the functioning of our highest court in jeopardy for more than a year. That is the partisan attack on our independent judicial system that more Americans need to understand.

When the dust settles on this latest series of provocative accusations by the Republican standard bearer, I hope the American people will remember what this says about his disrespect for the rule of law. What it says about his disrespect for our justice system. What it says about how he will treat those who may disagree with him. And what it says about those who fail to hold him accountable.

Our Founders understood why this great nation needs an independent judiciary. They designed our courts to be insulated from the political whims of the moment. They designed our judiciary to serve as a check on the political branches, including on the power of the President. Can you imagine a future president who does not respect that role that judges play? A president who thinks that judges should be disqualified from doing their jobs simply based on their race or their gender?

For the good of the country, Republicans need to stop diminishing our independent Federal judiciary. It is too important to be treated like an election year pawn. Our Federal courts – from the Supreme Court all the way down – deserve to be at full strength, and the Senate needs to treat fairly the dozens of nominees before us who all have earned bipartisan support. It is not fair to attack sitting judges for political gain. And it is also not fair to make allegations against judges who, as nominees, cannot respond without receiving a public hearing.

If the Republican leaders of this body want to distinguish themselves from the rhetoric of the campaign trail, they need to change course here in the Senate. Actions speak louder than words. They should allow Chief Judge Garland a public hearing and a confirmation vote this month. They should also allow an up or down vote on the 22 judicial nominees who have been reported favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The American people deserve leaders who respect and support our Federal courts, and who have the courage to take action.

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