Sen. Johnny Isakson, left, with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, wants the Judiciary chairman and ranking Republican to have time to review the nominees' files, an Isakson aide said.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, left, with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, wants the Judiciary chairman and ranking Republican to have time to review the nominees’ files, an Isakson aide said. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

More than a month after President Obama nominated six candidates to federal judicial posts in Georgia, the state’s two Republican senators have yet to return “blue slips” signaling their approval to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, a committee aide said.

As a result, the judiciary committee—which began holding hearings Jan. 8 on nominees from other states whose names the president submitted at the same time as the Georgia nominees—has not yet scheduled confirmation hearings for two nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and four nominees to the Northern District of Georgia trial court bench, according to the aide.

On Tuesday, the judiciary committee was holding confirmation hearings for six Arizona nominees to fill judicial posts that have been designated by the U.S. Administrative Office of Courts as emergency vacancies. Two of Georgia’s district court seats have been designated as emergency vacancies.

U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson have not signaled their approval of the list of Georgia judicial nominees even though the slate of six names was part of a compromise deal that the White House struck with them late last year.

On Tuesday, Isakson spokeswoman Lauren Culbertson said, “Senator Isakson believes that it is appropriate to allow the chairman and the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee to review the background investigation paperwork of the six nominees before he returns all six blue slips.” Aides to Chambliss declined to comment Tuesday on the lack of action.

That package deal presumably was to have lifted a longtime hold the senators had placed on the president’s nomination of Atlanta attorney Jill Pryor, a partner at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, to the Eleventh Circuit. Pryor was first nominated in February 2012 and renominated last year despite the senators’ opposition.

The two senators previously had blocked Pryor’s nomination by refusing to return the so-called blue slips to the Judiciary Committee—a senatorial courtesy that its chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., scrupulously observes.

Georgia lawyers familiar with the process have told the Daily Report that as part of the deal, Isakson and Chambliss also agreed to withdraw their objections to trial lawyer Leigh Martin May, a partner at Butler Wooten & Fryhofer whom they earlier had rejected as a nominee to the Northern District bench when she was recommended by Georgia’s Democratic congressmen in 2009.

In return, the White House agreed to nominate U.S. District Chief Judge Julie Carnes—who was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush—to the Eleventh Circuit, along with Pryor.

The White House also nominated Troutman Sanders attorney Mark Cohen, whose name the senators had put forth both as a candidate for the district court and as their preference over Pryor for the Eleventh Circuit; and two appointees of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal: Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs and DeKalb County State Court Judge Eleanor Ross.

The judiciary committee is still waiting for paperwork involving, among other things, an FBI background check on Ross, according to the committee aide. But Georgia’s senators are free to return blue slips on the other nominees at their discretion, the aide said.

A blue slip refers to an opinion on a federal judicial nominee offered by that nominee’s home-state senators. In addition to Pryor, Chambliss and Isakson also refused to return blue slips for attorney Natasha Perdew Silas, a public defender whom the president had nominated along with U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Walker as part of an earlier package deal to fill two vacancies on Northern Georgia’s District Court. The nominations of the two women, both African-Americans, were withdrawn by the president at the end of 2011.

The package deal of nominees has already sparked controversy in Georgia. U.S. Rep. David Scott, whose 13th District includes parts of Clayton, Cobb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton and Henry counties, called the selection process “an abomination” and has written to Leahy asking for permission to testify that the candidates “are unrepresentative of the demographics and values of the state.”

At a Dec. 23 news conference in Atlanta at which Scott appeared with fellow Congressional Democrats John Lewis and Hank Johnson, Lewis said that he, too, was prepared to testify at confirmation hearings.

A coalition of African-American lawyers and bar associations in Georgia also has asked for permission to testify in opposition to six nominees to the federal bench in Georgia at their confirmation hearings.

A Jan. 10 letter signed by former Fulton County Chief Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore, Holland & Knight partner Charles Johnson, AT&T corporate attorney Suzanne Ockleberry and former Richmond County Superior Court Judge Bettianne Hart said the request was made because the White House ignored letters, emails, public protests and press conferences condemning the “secretive process” and “the lack of diversity in the slate of the proposed nominees as well as concerns with the fitness of some of the candidates slated for confirmation.”

On Wednesday, Johnson said the coalition has heard no response from the Judiciary Committee to its request.

Richard Vining, an associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia, told the Daily Report that Leahy’s strict adherence to the blue slip tradition is at variance with previous Judiciary Committee chairmen, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and the late Sens. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

“When they were chairs, the standard was more about having meaningful consultation or good faith consultation with senators,” Vining observed. The idea of “an absolute veto” by senators not of the president’s party, while common in the Senate 50 years ago, had fallen into disuse. Leahy, he said, began putting new emphasis on blue slips after President George W. Bush was elected in 2000 as an apparent means of blocking some of the Republican president’s more controversial nominees. But he has maintained the practice throughout the Obama administration, Vining said.

“I’m a little surprised, in reaching that hard-fought deal in which the administration caved, in many ways we’re still stalled,” Vining continued. “I’m a little surprised there is so little movement after fighting for years after who these people will be and winding up with people the Republicans clearly favor more than the Democratic House delegation does.”

“Traditionally,” Vining added, “if the president and the senators are from a different party, the president often looked to people from his own party for advice about official nominees. These out-of-party senators having such a powerful role in this process is a little bit unusual historically.”