WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans and the White House are signaling a tentative point of agreement on a key part of President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination process: the nominee questionnaire.
The statements regarding the questionnaire are part of the careful maneuvering on the issue by all sides in this tense and unusual Supreme Court nomination process for D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Merrick Garland.
Traditionally, the Senate Judiciary Committee sends a personalized questionnaire for Supreme Court nominees to the White House. This time, the White House has not received one from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democratic member of the committee.
Nonetheless, on Friday evening, Grassley’s spokesperson, Beth Levine, told BuzzFeed News that the Republicans “assume the administration will fill out the standard questionnaire submitted for judicial nominations.”
Levine reiterated, however, the Republican leadership’s position that “a majority of the Senate has made clear that the American people should have an opportunity to weigh in on this vacancy.”
The White House reacted to the statement with cautious optimism.
“It appears that Chairman Grassley is prepared to accept a questionnaire from Judge Garland,” White House spokesperson Brandi Hoffine told BuzzFeed News on Saturday. “We are heartened by this development and look forward to the Committee making this request directly to the nominee as well as to the White House, as is standard practice.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire is a critical part of the process for those nominated for a federal judgeship. The questions focus on the basics, like education and employment history, but also seek detailed information on speeches and writings of the nominee, as well as information about the nominee’s experience as a practicing lawyer and a complete recounting of the decisions of nominees who already are lower-court judges.
Hoffine said Garland “is prepared to provide all relevant information, consistent with standard practice, in short order.”
By this time in the nomination processes for now-Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, their questionnaires had not only been sent to the White House by the Senate committee but also had been returned to the committee.
Leahy’s spokesperson, Jessica Brady, noted the “important role” the committee plays in the nomination process, telling BuzzFeed News, “The full committee's formal review of Chief Garland's record begins when it receives a completed Senate questionnaire laying out the nominee's record. Of course the committee should do its job and treat Chief Judge Garland the same way previous Supreme Court nominees have been treated.”
As had been the case with Sotomayor and Kagan, Garland’s Supreme Court nomination is not the first time Garland would submit a questionnaire to the Judiciary Committee. Garland submitted one when President Clinton nominated him to the D.C. Circuit.
In the normal confirmation process, the committee staffs then review the questionnaire, often seeking follow-up information, in advance of the hearings for the nomination.
This, though, is a highly unusual nomination process. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said, unequivocally, that no nominee of Obama’s to replace Justice Antonin Scalia will receive a vote. And both McConnell and Grassley have said there will not be hearings for Garland’s nomination. Given the reluctance of many Republicans to even meet with Garland for the informal, one-on-one meetings that ordinarily take place after a Supreme Court nomination is announced, it was not clear Republicans even would accept a Garland questionnaire — or that there would be a reason to even undertake the process.
But, nine days after Obama nominated Garland in a Rose Garden announcement, there are some tentative signs of a thaw — at least among those Republicans facing tough reelection battles.
On Tuesday, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois is scheduled to be the first Republican senator to meet with Garland, the senator’s office announced Friday. A day earlier, Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said that, while he doesn’t support Garland, he believes Obama’s nominee deserves a hearing. And, for her part, Maine Sen. Susan Collins has said she will meet with Garland — and has been pushing colleagues to do so and hold hearings as well.
None of those senators are the majority leader, though, and none are even on the Judiciary Committee. But, it is clear that McConnell’s plan does not have unanimous support. And Friday’s statement from Grassley’s spokesperson does open the door for this unconventional nomination to at least take one conventional step forward.
The White House, for its part, will continue to press for further steps forward with its “do your job” argument.
“We expect that, alongside this request [of the questionnaire], Committee members will do their jobs by completing meetings with the nominee, noticing a hearing, and giving Judge Garland the consideration he deserves,” Hoffine said.