Obstructionism Turns to Smear Tactics
November 3, 2009
Generally, when we think of controversial appointments made by U.S. Presidents to positions, we think of two general areas: The Cabinet, and The Supreme Court. The latter has come into focus three times over the past ten years, with the appointments of Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts by President George W. Bush and the recent appointment of Justice Sotomayor by President Barack Obama. During each of those appointments, Senators on both sides of the aisle asked many pointed questions in an attempt to determine the views of the nominees on a wide variety of issues. While many may deplore the tactics of one side or the other, we can all agree that because of their stature as the highest legal authority in the nation, appointees to the Supreme Court deserve a fair deal of scrutiny when it comes to their legal and personal positions.
The same cannot be said of many of the appointees to various positions that currently await Senate approval. These individuals are not slated to serve in high profile positions that demand a great deal of scrutiny about their views and positions, yet they seem to be receiving more than their fair share of criticism—critiques that often border on blatant smears against the nominees.
One prime example of this unfair targeting is Edward Chen, a nominee for federal district judge to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Chen, an Asian American and a U.S. magistrate for the past eight years, has been the target of virulent criticism by many who claim that he is unpatriotic and unfit to serve based on his personal views. Many of these attacks stem from sound bytes and quotes taken out of context, while others are purely partisan attacks. For example, a major criticism of Chen is that he is unpatriotic because he felt a “sickening feeling in my stomach about what might happen to race relations and religious tolerance on our own soil ... one has to wonder whether the seemingly irresistible forces of racism and nativism and scapegoating which (have) recurred so often in our history can be effectively restrained,” after September 11 th , 2001. However, President Bush apparently felt that same fear when he went to a Washington Mosque just days after the attacks, desiring to remind Americans that we are a land of tolerance. Overall, the attacks on Chen seem rather ridiculous for District Court posting. Never before has a District Court nominee received such scrutiny, and if it continues, it represents a new level of political impasse that threatens to undermine the appointments process both now and in the future.
Another poignant example of the obstructions taking place in the Senate is the prospect of approving Dawn Johnsen as the head of the Office of Legal Council in the Department of Justice. As a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Acting Assistant Attorney General heading the OLC during the Clinton Administration, Johnsen has superb credentials and is supremely qualified for the position. However, she has come under attack for her personal views on issues such as abortion. While her personal views on this issue may be important if the President had nominated her for a position such as the Supreme Court, or Secretary of Health and Human Services, the position she is being nominated for does not put her in a strong position to insert her personal views on social issues into policy. While it is true that the Office of Legal Council provides legal advice to President Obama, his views on abortion are fairly well known and nominating someone to the head of OLC that has similar views will probably not have much of an effect on his proposed policies. Thus, the litmus test that has been set up by the minority in the Senate only serves to delay the appointment of a qualified candidate to this critical post based on partisan preferences. Johnsen was nominated by President Obama on April 16 th 2009, and is still awaiting a vote by the full Senate, almost seven full months later.