Few senators have had as much impact on the federal judiciary as Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), and in one of his final Senate speeches today, Specter sought to extend his influence a bit more.
Specter, who lost his re-election bid in this year’s Democratic primary, called for several rule changes that would make it easier for judicial and executive branch nominees to win confirmation. He said only 51 votes, rather than 60, should be needed to end a filibuster of a nominee, and he proposed ending the practice of allowing 30 additional hours of debate after debate has been cut off. He also said the Senate should end the practice of secret “holds,” which allow a senator to delay a nominee anonymously and often indefinitely.
Though he has proposed similar rule changes in the past, Specter said the gridlock over nominations has gotten worse.
“Important positions are left open for months, and the Senate agenda today is filled with un-acted-upon judicial and executive nominees,” he said.
Specter (picture above, in July) proposed the changes in what is often called a retiring senator’s “farewell speech,” but he eschewed that phrase and said he wanted to make “a closing argument to the jury of my colleagues and the American people.” He took the opportunity to criticize partisan polarization in Congress and to address other issues he’s championed, including increasing funding for cancer research and televising the Supreme Court.
“Congress has the authority to legislate on this subject, just as Congress has the authority to legislate on other administrative matters” of how the Supreme Court functions, Specter said. He noted, for example, that Congress can set the day that the Court convenes.
After he leaves the Senate, Specter plans to teach a course on the Supreme Court at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and he is “weighing offers to join several law firms as senior counsel,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported today. The newspaper added that Specter wants to do radio or television commentary and possibly take on assignments for the Obama administration.
Specter is in a unique position on the subject of judicial nominees. As a Republican during George W. Bush’s presidency, he pushed for Bush’s nominees to get up-or-down votes. As a Democrat since last year, he’s done the same for President Barack Obama’s nominees.
He’s also a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he drew national attention for his involvement in Supreme Court confirmation hearings. He opposed his party’s leadership in voting against Judge Robert Bork’s failed nomination in 1987, and he angered Democrats with his questioning of Anita Hill during Justice Clarence Thomas’ hearings in 1991.
Specter recalled those testy nominations today, noting that not even they were met with filibusters. “Since Judge Bork and Justice Thomas did not provoke filibusters, I think the Senate can do without them on judges and public office holders,” he said. (In a slip-up, Specter initially said “Justice Bork.”)
In 2005, the Senate’s “Gang of 14” reached a compromise on Bush’s most contentious nominees, saying nominees should be filibustered only under “extraordinary circumstances.” But “that standard has not been followed,” Specter said, “as those filibusters have continued up until this day.”
(Republicans have not outright blocked any of Obama’s judicial nominees from getting a final confirmation vote — the usual definition of a “filibuster” — but they have successfully delayed votes and they have threatened filibusters against a handful of nominees. Democrats have called those delays “pocket filibusters.”)
Specter told colleagues that, despite leaving elected office, he’s not going away. “I do not say farewell to my continuing involvement in public policy, which I will pursue in a different venue,” he said.
National Law Journal photo by Diego M. Radzinschi. Updated at 12:37 p.m. with additional background.