Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I Just Don't Get the U.S. Senate

From today's New York Times comes yet another article about the recurringly bizarre spectacle that we use to obtain the Senate's "advice and consent" in the appointment of Federal judges. This time, the storm is swirling around Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), who is also (why does this not surprise me) considering a run for the presidency in 2008. According to today's article, Sen. Brownback has been single-handedly blocking the nomination of Janet Neff, a 61-year-old state judge from Michigan who has been put forward for a spot on Federal District Court.

What did Ms. Neff do to incur the wrath of Sen. Brownback? She attended a wedding. More specifically, she attended the wedding of a young lady who had grown up as Ms. Neff's next door neighbor and who was a long-time friend of Ms. Neff's own children. Well, actually it wasn't really a wedding. Not legally, at least. It was really more like a commitment ceremony, since the event involved not just one but two brides. And even though it was held in Massachusetts, the ceremony took place before same-sex marriage was available there.

Now think about this situation for a second. Let's say you got an invitation to the wedding (commitment ceremony, civil union, whatever) of your neighbor's daughter. You had known the family for 26 years. You had watched this young woman grow up from the time she was a little girl, and had become "... so close that the woman was, in effect, a part of [your] family and was like a big sister to [your] own daughters." Even if you detested the idea of same-sex marriage, just what kind of heartless bastard would you have to be to refuse this invitation on that basis alone?

And yet, if you harbor any ambitions for a high-level federal post of any kind, I guess you would have act like a complete asshole and turn your back on this woman and her family. Because, until recently, Sen. Brownback had successfully managed to block this nomination due simply to Ms. Neff's presence at this ceremony. He said that he felt that her mere attendance at a gay "wedding" made her unfit to rule on similar cases, since it "... raised serious questions about her impartiality..." on this issue.

One wonders about what this logic implies about all of the other judges out there who have only ever attended heterosexual weddings. Can they really be impartial? What about those who have attended Jewish weddings? Shouldn't they recuse themselves from any of those knotty cases about whether a menorah must be shown alongside of a nativity scene?

I have to confess that I've never really understood the U.S. Senate. I've read the Constitution, and it seems to describe the Senate in terms that I can easily understand. But it's the things that aren't in the Constitution -- things that really carry no real weight of law at all -- that seem to make the Senate what it is. All of those arcane rules and traditions that just don't seem to make a great deal of sense for a democratic body.

In this case, I just don't get how a single senator can block a "... nomination [that] was included in a package of more than a dozen nominees whose confirmation had been agreed upon by both Democrats and Republicans". But Mr. Brownback didn't like this one nominee, and his objections alone were enough to hold up the entire roster of nominees. Part of the answer, I suppose, is that Sen. Brownback holds a seat on the Judiciary Committee, and thus is in a prime position to pull this kind of stunt. But still, I've served on various committees in my lifetime, and none of those ground to a standstill simply because a single member wanted to vote "no". We moved forward, took our votes, recorded the objections, and that was the end of things.

In the end, Sen. Brownback gave in and allowed all of these nominations to proceed. He did try, at the last minute, to make Ms. Neff promise to recuse herself from any gay marriage cases. But even that effort failed when various experts pointed out that the Senate has never put that kind of a restriction on any other judicial nominee in its history. I suppose that democracy kind of won out in the end, but it still seems like the Senate rules made that victory far more difficult than it should have been.

1 comment:

lunkhead said...

Sen. Brownback won't get the nomination. He's too soft on illegal immigration.