Sens. Isakson and Chambliss refuse to return 'blue slips' of approval, according to Georgia lawyers at Washington meetings
Georgia's Republican senators are blocking confirmation of President Barack Obama's Georgia-based appeals court nominee, Jill Pryor, according to reports from Washington meetings earlier this week.
Obama in February nominated the Atlanta litigator to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. According to two Georgia lawyers who attended Monday meetings with White House officials and staffers for Senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, the two senators are stopping her nomination from proceeding.
Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights was among those attending Monday's meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Senior Counsel Christopher Kang—the point person for federal judicial nominations in Ruemmler's office. Bright said either Ruemmler or Kang said Isakson and Chambliss had refused to return what are called "blue slips" on Pryor. Blue slips are the U.S. Senate's traditional indication that nominees have received the approval of their home state senator.
"The real abuse here—and our senators are Exhibit A—are the blue slips," said Bright.
He noted two lingering vacancies on the Northern District of Georgia are considered "emergencies" by court administrators. "These should be the priority seats that are being filled," Bright said.
Bright's report about the status of Pryor's nomination was buttressed by a Twitter post from Atlanta lawyer David Dreyer, a member of the executive committee of the American Constitution Society's executive committee who also attended Monday's meeting. Dreyer tweeted on Monday that Georgia's senators were "now blocking Jill Pryor's nom[ination]."
Dreyer said later he deduced that from meetings with the senators' staffers. He said his group asked the staffers if they had substantive problems with Pryor's nomination.
"They would not provide any," Dreyer said. He said the staffers showed the Georgia visitors a letter Chambliss and Isakson had sent to Ruemmler earlier this year indicating that they would return blue slips on Pryor and U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Walker for district court spots and Troutman Sanders partner Mark Cohen for the circuit seat. "They said this is the package that we're comfortable with," said Dreyer.
Concerned Black Clergy President the Rev. Timothy McDonald, former State Bar of Georgia president (and one of Pryor's law partners at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore) Jeff Bramlett and Georgia State University law professor Neil Kinkopf also attended Monday's sessions, Bright said. The White House event was to have included 150 supporters from 27 states.
"The goal was in some states there are people who, with a little push, might be confirmed this summer," said Bright. But he said that, come January, whoever is president would likely find himself with the Eleventh Circuit vacancy as well as three spots to fill on the Northern District of Georgia (including that of Charles Pannell Jr., who recently told the White House he intends to take senior status when he turns 67 on Jan. 24).
In January 2011, Obama nominated Walker and Natasha Perdew Silas, an attorney with the Federal Defender Program in Atlanta, to fill the posts but withdrew both nominations at the end of last year after Chambliss and Isakson refused to lend their support to Silas. According to Bright, it's too late for the president to make new nominations for those posts this year, an assessment he said Kang confirmed for him on Monday.
Pryor's nomination hasn't been scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Erica Chabot, a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., confirmed that Chambliss and Isakson have not yet returned their blue slips on the Pryor nomination. Chabot said that under Leahy's chairmanship, the committee doesn't schedule confirmation hearings on pending nominations until blue slips have been returned from both home state senators.
Isakson and Chambliss have declined to comment publicly on Pryor's nomination. Asked about Pryor at a recent event in Atlanta, Chambliss said he doesn't comment on specific judicial nominees because it's not fair to the nominee or the White House.
Staff for the two senators told the group from Georgia essentially the same thing that they've been telling the press, Bright said.
"They're just like the senators—'we don't comment on that,'" he said. Bright said his group "basically just expressed our concern about the use of blue slips and the need for these courts to have judges. … They politely listened to us, and we agreed to disagree."
Bright said he asked the senators' staff about a 2005 op-ed piece by Isakson and Chambliss in which the two complained Democrats had filibustered several of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.
"Not only does the Constitution require an up-or-down vote," the op-ed said, but "denial of an up-or-down vote goes against basic principles of fairness; it also is unprecedented in history." Bright said the response from the senatorial staff was the requirement of an up-or-down vote is triggered after a nominee gets past the Judiciary Committee.
An American Bar Association committee was unanimous in giving Pryor, who graduated from Yale Law School and clerked for Eleventh Circuit Judge J.L. Edmondson, a "well qualified" rating. Bright said he thought it was possible that Pryor could be confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit were Obama to be reelected and renominate her next year.
Pryor declined to comment for this story, as did a spokeswoman for Chambliss. Isakson's spokeswoman didn't respond to inquiries.