In retaliation for Senate Democrats’ repeated use of the filibuster to block President Bush’s judicial nominations, Republicans have proposed the “nuclear option” — changing Senate rules to deny the use of the filibuster on judicial nominees. Democrats have successfully used the filibuster to block a handful of Bush’s judicial nominations, circumventing the usual up-or-down majority vote. Because a three-fifths vote is required to end the floor debate, the majority in the Senate must work to gain support from the minority. By stripping senators of their right to filibuster, Republicans would have an easier time obtaining confirmation for their judicial nominees, and the change would apply to future Supreme Court justice nominations.
To garner support for this effort, the conservative Family Research Council organized a rally entitled “Justice Sunday – Stopping the Filibuster against People of Faith.” During the controversial event, speakers accused the Democratic Party of using the filibuster specifically against nominees of the Christian faith and called for a change in Senate rules to combat this alleged discrimination. With speeches from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and others, the event was a disturbing attempt to use religion for political gain. Furthermore, it was inherently offensive to people of faith who are not Republicans, as the basic premise of the rally linked religion with the Republican Party’s platform.
Senate Democrats are obstructing nominees not on the basis of their religious beliefs, but rather because of their ultra-conservative and activist judicial philosophies. Many of the potential judges threaten to overturn years of legal precedent in cases such as Roe v. Wade. One nominee, former Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, is an outspoken advocate of the “greater role of religion in government” — an idea that rightfully makes Senate Democrats uneasy.
The filibuster is a unique and powerful tool used exclusively in the Senate for the purpose of mutual restraint in a system of check and balances. Historically, both parties have implemented the filibuster during the judicial confirmation process for federal judges and Supreme Court justices. Without this check, judicial nominations could be approved with only a slim majority vote, and the minority party would have no way of halting a judicial confirmation it firmly opposes.
Considering that only a majority vote is needed to change Senate rules, an end to the filibuster is feasible. But just because Republicans have the ability to alter the rules in their favor does not mean they should. Bush has argued that Senate Democrats should allow an up-or-down vote to proceed for those nominees who are qualified for a position on the federal bench. And they have: the Senate has confirmed 205 of the 215 judges Bush has nominated since his election. It is only 10 of Bush’s most radical nominees that Democrats have used the filibuster to block.
Ending the judicial filibuster would weaken the process of judicial confirmation by eliminating the need for bipartisan consensus. Federal judges play an important role as a check on the executive and legislative branches, and the elimination of the filibuster would jeopardize the Senate’s ability to pick fair judges that satisfy members of both parties. Despite the temptation to manipulate Senate rules for their party’s immediate benefit, Republican senators should recognize that it is in the best interest of the Senate and the American public to leave the judicial filibuster intact.