WASHINGTON-A packed committee room at Wednesday's confirmation hearing for President Obama's first judicial nominee was missing one group: Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.
Saying they had not been given enough time to prepare, most Republicans boycotted the hearing on Judge David Hamilton's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Their absence as a group sent a unified message that they would not be rushed and signaled that storms may be on the horizon as Obama attempts to remake the courts.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said committee Democrats ignored repeated requests for reasonable time to evaluate Hamilton's controversial record. "There is no reason for scheduling a drive-by hearing only days after nomination except to turn the Senate into a rubber stamp for President Obama's nominees," said Hatch, a former Judiciary Committee Chairman.
The Republicans signed a letter to the committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., which argued that holding a hearing two weeks after the nomination marks a significant departure from previous committee practice: "None of President Bush's circuit court nominees received a hearing so quickly. In fact, on average, senators were afforded 166 days to prepare for hearings on President Bush's circuit court nominees, and 117 days for President Clinton's circuit nominees."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called the boycott regrettable. "It doesn't bode well for filing the vacancies on the bench," he said. "I think [Republicans] are off to a bad start."
Absent any Republicans, the hearing turned into a procession of Democrats praising Hamilton.
Hamilton, Obama's first Appeals Court nominee, has come under fire by conservative groups for numerous controversial rulings during almost 15 years as a U.S. district judge in Indiana. For example, Hamilton struck down an informed consent law that would give women information about abortion's risks and alternatives through counseling with her doctor. He also outlawed the use of prayer in the Indiana legislature.
The Chicago-based Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the court Hamilton would now serve on if confirmed, reversed both decisions.
During friendly questioning, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee gave Hamilton ample opportunity to explain his past rulings: "The federal judiciary is not a place for anyone to exercise their personal opinions."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the committee, appeared briefly at the hearing's start to criticize the lack of preparation time. Specter said staffers received Hamilton's hefty responses to a questionnaire just last week. Specter did not remain in the room very long.
The only other Republican senator to appear was Indiana's Richard Lugar, who praised fellow Hoosier Hamilton.
Leahy said that a committee vote on Hamilton's nomination would not occur for at least three weeks-after the Senate's two-week Easter recess.