Black Caucus Urges Senate Dems To Demolish Judiciary Nomination Tradition

The Congressional Black Caucus is turning up the heat on Senate Democrats, urging them to destroy a century-old upper-chamber tradition that allows individual senators to reject federal judiciary nominees who will preside in the senator’s state. 

The Biden administration’s quest to fill federal benches with progressives has been stymied to a great extent by the Senate’s narrow majority, and by the ailing and failing Senator Dianne Feinstein’s lengthy time away from her critical seat on the judiciary committee. 

On top of that, individual Republican senators have been making regular use of the nomination-blocking power granted to them under the Senate’s “blue slip” tradition. When a district or circuit court nominee is named, a blue piece of paper with the nominee’s name is given to the senators who represent the state in which that nominee would function as a federal judge. If the senator doesn’t send the slip to the Judiciary Committee, it’s understood the nominee doesn’t enjoy the senator’s approval and thus can’t advance to a committee nomination hearing. The slip can also be returned with negative comments. 

The tradition has endured since at leaast 1917, according to a Congressional Research Service study. However, the Congressional Black Caucus thinks it’s time to kill blue slips: Politico reports that caucus members met with Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin last week and asked him to do away with blue slips.

Rep. Steven Horsford chairs the Congressional Black Caucus (CQ Roll Call)

“I don’t know why anyone, let alone Senate Democrats, would hold up a Jim Crow practice,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Steven Horsford (NV).  

Crow implied that the blue slip tradition is killing black people. “It is literally about the fundamental survival of the people we represent,” Horsford claimed. “And we expressed that history, that context and that necessity to Chairman Durbin.”

The caucus hasn’t always felt that way. In 2017, the Black Caucus urged then-Senate Judiciary chair Chuck Grassley to “uphold [the] longstanding ‘blue slip’ policy.” Doing away with blue slips, they argued, would “remove the last meaningful check on President Trump’s power to unilaterally pack the judiciary – would further politicize the courts, erode judicial diversity, and undermine public confidence in the judiciary’s ability to provide fair and impartial justice.”

In 2023, it’s not just congressional blacks who are looking to kill blue slips. On Wednesday, an alliance of progressive organizations urged Durbin to “reform or discontinue” the blue slip policy, decrying the fact that “39 of the 43 district court vacancies subject to Republican blue slips — 91% — still do not have nominees.”

Their demands were sent in a letter. Its 33 signatory organizations included American Atheists, Climate Hawks Vote, Feminist Majority Foundation, Hip Hop Caucus, and National Center for Transgender Equality. 

Durbin is hesitant to give in to pressure from the Black Caucus and progressive groups. Black Caucus senators Cory Booker and Raphael Warnock are likewise reluctant. Then again, according to Politico, Durbin doesn’t even have the unilateral power to stop the blue-slip tradition — doing so would require a revision of Senate rules. 


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