Suppose you are a United States Senator who must decide whether to support a nominee for a judgeship. What are the most important criteria?
A. Knowledge of the law
C. Judicial temperament
E. If I vote for the guy, will it offend my extremist base?
Most of us would consider the first four. But if the senator in question were Marco Rubio, and if he were forced to answer honestly, he would have to admit to E.
Sen. Rubio made that clear when, having previously supported the nomination of William Thomas to serve as a judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, he first delayed for months giving the Senate Judiciary Committee his okay to move forward with the nomination then changed his mind entirely. By committee tradition, both home state senators must sign off on a judicial nomination for it to proceed. Sen. Rubio’s reversal effectively vetoes the nomination.
As a result, this judgeship, already vacant for more than 18 months, will remain vacant still longer, causing unconscionable delays for residents of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and several other South Florida counties seeking justice in federal court.
Thomas now serves as a state court judge in Florida. Between the time Rubio said he would support Thomas and the time he changed his mind, Thomas did not change. He’s the same William Thomas who won the support of groups like the Dade County Police Benevolent Association, the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, and the League of Prosecutors, a Miami-based group made up of current and former prosecutors.
The only thing that’s changed is Rubio’s need to shore up his far-right base after flirting with compromise on immigration reform. Apparently, Rubio didn’t want to further alienate his extremist allies by supporting a highly-qualified judge who would also happen to be the first openly gay black male judge to serve on the federal bench.
As Yolanda Strader, president of Miami’s largest association for black lawyers told The New York Times:
As much as I would like to think that politics has nothing to do with this, it looks as if it does. It would be unfair to prevent a well-qualified judicial nominee from proceeding with the nomination process because he is an openly gay black male.
But given Rubio’s feeble and illogical excuses for his reversal, that appears to be exactly what’s happened.
Rubio cites two rulings by Thomas.
In the first, Thomas had to throw out a confession in a horrific rape and murder case because two of the five defendants either had not been read their Miranda rights, or did not understand them. Nonetheless, all five were convicted or pled guilty – and Judge Thomas sentenced one of the killers to death. Never mind that the ruling at issue was made more than six years ago—and for that reason alone could not logically serve as Rubio’s justification for changing his mind about Judge Thomas in the last several months—Judge Thomas’s decision was a product of exactly what conservatives say they want judges to do: strictly apply the law, instead of bending it to reach a desired outcome.
In the second case, Rubio felt that Thomas had not imposed a sufficiently harsh sentence on a driver who killed a cyclist.
But Rubio has the complex facts of the case wrong. In January of this year, the prosecutor who handled the case set the record straight in a letter to Rubio, saying that Judge Thomas made his sentencing determination—which was within the guidelines provided by law—using “careful judgment.” In July, the Administrative Judge for the court where Thomas serves did the same. Rubio ignored both letters.
To make matters worse, these are exactly the sorts of questions that are best hashed out in the sunlight of a public committee hearing. But without Rubio’s consent, Judge Thomas will never have that opportunity.
The big losers in all this are the people of South Florida. When federal courts don’t have enough judges, delays can become unbearable. Medical bills caused by injuries due to negligence may pile up while families wait for justice; memories may fade; witnesses may die.
Judge Thomas would have filled a seat that has been vacant for more than a year and a half. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts says the situation is so bad that the vacancy is a “judicial emergency.”
By his actions on the Thomas nomination, Rubio has given new meaning to the term “obstruction of justice.”
In its letter to Rubio strongly endorsing Thomas, the League of Prosecutors wrote:
If – as we believe appropriate – the criteria on which you base your decision to confirm district court judges are judicial ability, work ethic, intelligence, experience, and a willingness to adhere scrupulously to the dictates of the law, you should confirm Judge Thomas without hesitation and urge your colleagues to do the same.
Too bad those are not Marco Rubio’s criteria.