Concerns raised by a Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee member about the tone of questioning being directed at nominees of color prompted sharp rebuke by two Republicans on the committee.
Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla of California used a Thursday committee vote on Andre Mathis, President Joe Biden’s nominee to the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals, to spotlight questioning toward the Black nominee that Padilla characterized as “demeaning, offensive and just plain wrong.”
“Mr. Mathis, unfortunately, isn’t the only nominee to receive this kind of treatment,” Padilla said. “It’s not lost on me that [it’s] nominees of color that have been treated differently in our hearings, whether it’s insinuations of rap sheets, or hostility about their qualifications or views, or undue scrutiny of their personal religious faith.”
Though Padilla didn’t reference the coming fight over Biden’s yet-to-be-named Supreme Court nominee, already race has been at the forefront of that discussions, as some Republicans have criticized Biden’s vow to nominate a Black women to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer.
On Thursday, Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Josh Hawley objected to any claim of racial bias in the committee’s dealings with the lower court nominees who have come before it.
Lee, a Republican from Utah, said insinuations of racial bias are the “very sort of comment that would incite people to anger, acts of retaliation and violence.”
“Frankly, it’s reprehensible and I think it’s wrong,” added Hawley, a Missouri Republican. “I think it is highly destructive – highly destructive – of any efforts of bipartisanship and consensus building. And I just have to say I’m deeply disappointed by it.”
When the nominee was before the committee last month, committee member Sen. Marsha Blackburn said that Mathis had “a rap sheet with a laundry list of citations.”
The Tennessee Republican was referring to traffic tickets, all a decade or more old, that Mathis had failed to pay or answer for in court proceedings, resulting in his license being suspended for several months.
Padilla pointed to the “rap sheet” comment Thursday as he said he was “troubled” by the treatment Mathis had been subjected to. Those kinds of attacks on nominees can “undermine public confidence in the judiciary” and can at times incite harassment against them, Padilla said, as he asked his fellow committee members to be “cognizant of this disparity.”
Lee spoke next and said he hoped he had misunderstood Padilla. But to the “extent he was suggesting racial bias on the part of members of this committee,” Lee said that was “grossly inaccurate” and “extraordinarily unfair.”
“To accuse colleagues who disagree with you of racism is a very serious thing,” Lee said.
“I mean, to accuse members of this committee of racism because you disagree with them on substance I think is a very serious thing,” Hawley said, following up in agreement with Lee. “And frankly – I’m startled to hear it.”
Other Democrats also criticized the tone of questioning being directed at Mathis and other nominees.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is the longest-serving member of the Senate, said he worries “about the charges made against some nominees who, it would seem to be, in some cases, thinly veiled charges, because they’re a woman or a person of color.”
Chairman Dick Durbin said the family of a recent nominee, whom he did not name, had received threats after an unidentified senator tweeted a video of their exchange.
“I would join in Sen. Padilla’s request that we be respectful and still discharge our duties within the committee,” said Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
Controversy over blue slips
Even before Blackburn’s “rap sheet” comment last month, the circumstances around Mathis’ confirmation had been tense, as he was the first Biden appellate nominee to be moving forward without the support of the vacancy’s home state senators, Blackburn and her fellow Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty.
Under President Donald Trump, Senate Republicans had ended the practice of requiring home state senators to give their approval of circuit court nominees – via what’s known as a “blue slip” – before those nominees advance.
Much of Thursday’s meeting focused on whether the Biden White House had done less to consult with the Tennessee Republicans than what the Trump White House had given Senate Democrats before offering appellate nominees without their support.
While some Democrats said they were interested in working with Republicans to make sure home state senators have a say on appellate nominees, they also defended the Biden White House’s efforts to work with the Tennessee delegation before nominating Mathis. Democrats held firm that they would not restore the blue slip practice just because a Democrat was now in the White House.
The committee advanced Mathis by a 12-10 vote, with Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana joining the committee’s Democrats.