By Eleanor Levie and Lynne Jacobs
Kavod: Hebrew for respect, honor, weightiness. No matter what kind of Jew you are, a priority is undoubtedly respect for yourself and for others — even those holding different points of view. And there’s a symbol of kavod in the U.S. Senate that’s not well known but long-held: a single sheet of light blue paper called the “blue slip.”
For more than 100 years, the Senate Judiciary Committee has extended the courtesy of the blue slip. As tradition has it, returning a negative evaluation (printed on blue paper) or withholding the form altogether allows a senator to seriously slow or halt a nomination to the district or circuit courts of appeal of his or her own state. Using this aspect of the constitutional power of advise and consent, each senator can help make our federal judiciary more fair, more diverse and more mainstream.
Never have we needed the respectful civility of the Senate more, especially its responsibility for checks and balances on the executive and judicial branches of government. Last year, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Grassley let slip the tradition of the blue slip. Taking over the chairmanship this year, Lindsay Graham has also given a pass to nominees despite home-state senators finding them unqualified, inexperienced or unfit.
The first circuit court judge to be confirmed in more than 80 years without blue slip approval was David Stras for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in January 2018.
On Feb. 26 of this year, for the first time in 100 years, a nominee without blue slip approval of either home state senator was confirmed to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were alarmed that Eric D. Miller had repeatedly challenged tribal sovereignty, lands and religious freedom.
Murray also objected to the vetting process, or lack thereof: “Not only did Republicans schedule this nominee’s confirmation hearing during a recess period when just two senators — both Republicans — were able to attend, but the hearing included less than five minutes of questioning,” she stated, adding, “less questioning for a lifetime appointment than most students face for a book report in school.”
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown did not return blue slips for Eric Murphy and Chad Readler, writing, “I cannot support nominees who have actively worked to strip Ohioans of their rights. Special interests already have armies of lobbyists and lawyers on their side; they don’t need judges in their pockets.” Last week, the votes proceeded nonetheless, as usual along party lines, confirming both men to serve on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Stras is 44. Miller is 43. Murphy is 40. Readler is 46. Frequently, dissenting senators have based their disapprovals on nominees’ inexperience as well as ideology. But these fortysomethings raise another concern: Since all federal judges are appointed for lifetime positions, they could be on the bench for 40 years or more, making decisions that affect not only our lives, but those of our children and grandchildren.
While the Supreme Court hears only about 80 cases a year, the vast number of rulings come out of the lower federal courts. It’s those district courts that make decisions on issues such as voting rights, civil rights, separation of religion and state, environmental protections, health care and reproductive justice, and LGBT rights.
Meanwhile, the Senate continues to vote on circuit court nominees, a number of them considered controversial because they have expressed positions that are at odds with mainstream America. And because they have not received blue-slip approvals.
The National Council of Jewish Women is the first and most progressive Jewish women’s organization in the United States, and we have always been a leading voice for justice. We know that the courts affect every issue we care about, and we speak out as concerned constituents, asking our senators to confirm only fair, independent judges to these lifetime positions. We welcome those who share our core values, no matter your gender or faith, to join us in advocating for integrity in Congress and in the courts.
It’s time to demand that senators respect the blue slip process and that they seek nominees who can win bipartisan approval. We must urge our legislators to exercise due diligence in studying nominees’ records, and to conduct civil, deliberative hearings and calls for votes. We deserve highly qualified judges who pledge — over the course of their lifetime appointments — to rule without bias or favoritism. That’s how to define kavod.
Eleanor Levie is the Judicial Nominations Advocacy Chair and Lynne Jacobs is the State Policy Advocate for the National Council of Jewish Women—PA.