Washington — The long-running and often-contentious debate in the Senate over the Bush administration’s judicial nominations has taken on religious overtones, with accusations being leveled against Democrats of bias against Jewish nominees.
The Committee for Justice, a conservative organization that is supportive of the administration’s nominees for federal courts, hinted earlier this month that Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are blocking the nomination of Peter Keisler to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit because he is Jewish.
Since Democrats set out to block an entire class of conservative nominees to the bench since taking over the Senate in 2006, religion, as well as race, ethnicity and gender, has taken center stage in often-vitriolic partisan attacks. The ongoing debate over judicial picks has effectively reached a complete standstill, and both sides say there is little hope of reaching a compromise before the November elections.
The latest round of accusations was prompted by an April 3 meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee at which Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, refused to schedule hearings for a series of nominations to appeal courts around the country. After the meeting, the ranking Republican on the committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, told The Wall Street Journal that if nominations did not move forward, he would “close the Senate down.” Among the 11 nominees waiting for confirmation, the most pressing case for Republicans is that of Keisler to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which has already passed through one hearing.
The Democrats argue that Keisler holds extreme conservative views and that it is not clear at all that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit needs another judge. But according to the head of the Committee for Justice, Curt Levey, the Democrats’ reason for holding up the nomination is not only political but also religious. In a posting on the group’s blog, he reminded readers of past attempts to block the nomination of Miguel Estrada, allegedly because Estrada is Hispanic.
“Is the fact that Keisler is Jewish similarly contributing to his obstruction by Democrats?” said Levey, who is himself Jewish. “There is no way to know. But it’s worth noting that, of the nine appeals court nominees currently being obstructed, three are Jewish.”
The Democrats, Levey told the Forward, “want the public to think there are no conservatives among certain constituencies, such as Jews, blacks and Hispanics, and that is why they are especially likely to block them.”
Opponents of Bush’s judicial nominees dismissed such claims, saying their opposition is rooted in politics, not religion.
“I didn’t even know Keisler was Jewish until this ridiculous allegation of antisemitism was raised,” replied Judith Schaeffer, legal director of the liberal-leaning advocacy group People for the American Way, which opposes Keisler’s nomination. The group argues that he holds extreme views, and it demands that the administration release documents relating to Keisler’s work in the Reagan administration before holding a hearing.
Schaeffer said that throwing in the issue of Keisler’s religion was “demagoguery at its worst,” adding that in the past, similar allegations were raised when Democrats blocked the nomination of a Catholic candidate.
“They are simply trying to divert attention from the real issue, which is the nominees’ record,” Schaeffer said.
Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has opposed many of Bush’s nominees, was likewise dismissive of the claims.
“It is such a red herring that no one will believe it,” Moshenberg said. “Past attempts to raise these kinds of allegations never gained credibility.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman