When it comes to judicial nominees, there’s a common practice that’s been in place for many years – the White House takes the lead in choosing appeals court nominees, while U.S. senators play a leading role in choosing district court nominees from their own states.
So in Florida, for example, President Obama would nominate jurists for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the Sunshine State, but Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D) would be chiefly responsible for sending the White House qualified professionals to serve on federal district courts in the state.
Judge William Thomas, who currently serves on the Miami-Dade Circuit, fits the bill nicely. Thomas, who grew up in poverty in a large Pennsylvania family, worked hard and succeeded throughout his legal career. Rubio and Nelson reviewed Thomas’ record, subjected him to a background check, and encouraged the White House to nominate him for the federal bench.
Ten months ago, Obama’s team agreed and Thomas was poised to become the first black openly gay man to serve as a federal judge. That is, until a few days ago, when Rubio announced his opposition to the judicial nominee he recommended.
Supporters of Judge Thomas, who grew up on welfare in Pennsylvania in a family of 10 children, said Mr. Rubio’s opposition was rooted in politics, not court rulings. Mr. Rubio, a Republican, has seen his allure among conservatives tumble, a result of his aggressive push for immigration reform. In recent weeks, he has scarcely mentioned immigration, keeping his focus mostly on issues with broad conservative appeal like abortion and health care. […]
“As much as I would like to think that politics has nothing to do with this, it looks as if it does,” said Yolanda Strader, president of Miami’s largest association for black lawyers, who called Judge Thomas one of the hardest working on the bench. “It would be unfair to prevent a well-qualified judicial nominee from proceeding with the nomination process because he is an openly gay black male.”
Given the way the process works, Thomas’ nomination has now effectively been defeated – thanks to something called the “blue slip” process, a district court nominee needs the support of both in-state senators in order to advance towards confirmation. Rubio, by endorsing and then rejecting Thomas, therefore killed the nomination.
The question, of course, is why.
The far-right senator issued a statement saying he now has concerns about Thomas’s “fitness” for the bench following two recent criminal cases. “Those concerns include questions about his judicial temperament and his willingness to impose appropriate criminal sentences,” Rubio said.
The New York Times report walks through the details of the criminal cases in question, and it’s hard to imagine anyone credibly using the cases as a fair rationale to reject Thomas’ nomination.
Rather, what I suspect happened is that Rubio endorsed Thomas for the federal bench, then started imagining the attack ads his 2016 primary challengers might run against him, highlighting his role in choosing the nation’s first openly gay black man to become a federal judge. Rubio probably then started working backwards to justify a change of heart, and this is the best he could come up with.
“That is a slender reed for Senator Rubio to hang this on,” said Representative Alcee Hastings, Democrat of Florida, referring to the two court cases.
I realize Rubio has had a difficult summer, and has lost quite a few friends by making an attempt at governing, but this incident appears low, even for him.