This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Washington • Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch are lauding a Utah judicial nominee and calling for a quick vote to confirm Ronald G. Russell but with nearly 20 other nominees, and a Supreme Court pick, already awaiting votes, it's unclear whether Russell will find his way to the bench this year.
Lee and Hatch support Russell, whom President Barack Obama nominated in December, and said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday that he would be an excellent judge on the U.S. District Court for Utah.
"In Ron Russell, I found not only a man with an outstanding résumé, but also an upstanding servant of his community," Hatch said. "As such, I was honored to recommend Ron for appointment, and now I urge my colleagues to approve Ron's nomination promptly."
That may be highly unlikely.
Senate Republicans have allowed just 17 judicial nominees to be confirmed since taking over the majority, Democrats say, compared to 68 nominees approved in the last two years of President George W. Bush's term.
"I regret we have come to this point," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said Wednesday, in urging his GOP counterparts to hold votes on nominees.
Lee and Hatch are holding firm that they will neither meet with nor support a hearing or votes on Merrick Garland, Obama's pick to replace the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, continued the Democrats' rallying cry that the American people expect senators to "do their jobs."
"This is true with judicial nominations to the lower courts, but it is even more crucial for the Supreme Court of the United States because no one can fill in for the vacant seat on our highest court," Leahy said. "In just the last few weeks, the Supreme Court has deadlocked twice so it was unable to serve its highest constitutional function. Refusing to consider Chief Judge Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court is not only unfair to him, it is irresponsible and a threat to a functioning democracy."
Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair of the University of Richmond Law School who tracks judicial nominees, says the pace of judicial confirmations doesn't bode well for Russell.
"It's possible, and I'm cautiously optimistic because he had a great hearing, but there are so many people ahead of him," Tobias said.
It's doubtful, the law professor added, that Senate Republicans will go back on their promise to block hearings for Garland, and that could prove to be an excuse to drag their feet on other judicial nominees in Obama's final year in office. Even so, most of the judicial nominees are consensus picks, Tobias said, like Russell, who was nominated in consultation with Hatch and Lee.
Lee, a former law clerk to Justice Samuel Alito, praised Russell during his remarks Wednesday, noting that it is a "weighty responsibility" of the Senate to vet judicial nominees.
"This is a good day for the state of Utah and a good day for the federal judiciary," Lee said.
Russell thanked the senators for their kind words and Obama for nominating him.
"This is the greatest professional honor of my life," he said.
Meanwhile, Hatch on Wednesday took to the Senate floor to call out what he said were falsehoods spread by Democrats in trying to urge a vote on Garland when in the past they've spoken out against votes on Republican nominees.
"Democrats and their left-wing allies are peddling the false claim that the Constitution requires the Senate to conduct the confirmation process now for the president's nominee to the Scalia vacancy," Hatch said. "They are, of course, free to claim that the Constitution requires today the very hearings and floor votes that they denied to Republican nominees in the past. They may say those falsehoods as often as they wish, however, but they are still false."
Hatch previously has praised Garland as an excellent judge.
It couldn't happen in Utah
The current stalemate in Washington, where Republican senators have refused to vote on Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, would never happen in Utah. It couldn't.
The Utah Constitution, Article VIII, Section 8(3), states: "The Senate shall consider and render a decision on each judicial appointment within 60 days of the date of appointment."