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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Shies Away from Filibuster Reform Case

WASHINGTON (CN) - A federal judge shied away from litigation aimed at reforming the filibuster rule of the U.S. Senate, dismissing a complaint filed by House Democrats and a nonpartisan citizen's lobbying organization.

Common Cause joined several Democrats from the House of Representatives and individuals facing deportation because of stalled immigration reform to file a federal complaint seeking to declare the age-old weapon of the Senate minority unconstitutional and to replace it with a rule more fitting of democratic principles.

But U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan refused to grant the plaintiffs standing to sue for fear of disrupting the separation of powers.

"The court is firmly convinced that to intrude into this area would offend the separation of powers on which the Constitution rests," wrote the judge in his 47-page ruling. "Nowhere does the Constitution contain express requirements regarding the proper length of, or method for, the Senate to debate proposed legislation. Article I reserves to each House the power to determine the rules of its proceedings. And absent a rule's violation of an express constraint in the Constitution or an individual's fundamental rights, the internal proceedings of the Legislative Branch are beyond the jurisdiction of this court."

Senate Rule XXII requires a motion for cloture, a cumbersome procedure that requires 60 votes and 30 additional hours of debate to force the Senate to vote on a bill. If the matter involves amending the Senate rules, it requires 67 votes.

Common Cause and the Democrats said that the rule is unconstitutional because it "gives a minority of senators the power to dictate electoral outcomes or veto bills in the Senate or presidential appointments, contrary to the will of the majority."

By their numbers, over 400 bills passed by the House of Representatives - many with "broad bipartisan support - during the 111th Congress died in the Senate without ever having been debated because of the filibuster rule.

And with an increasingly hostile political arena, Democrats complain that filibuster is just another way for Republicans to embarrass President Barack Obama and stymie his agenda.

"Since the election of President Obama in 2008, the minority party in the Senate used Rule XXII to prevent debate and prevent the Senate from voting whether to confirm well over 100 nominations by the President to fill critical vacancies in the Executive and Judicial Branches," stated the complaint.

But "vote nullification" wasn't enough to prove injury to Judge Sullivan.

"While the House Members have presented a unique posture, the court is not persuaded that their alleged injury - vote nullification - falls into a narrow exception enunciated by the Supreme Court in Raines v. Byrd. And none of the other plaintiffs have demonstrated that this court can do anything to remedy the alleged harm they have suffered: the inability to take advantage of the opportunity to benefit from proposed legislation that was never debated, let alone enacted."

Though he dismissed the case, Judge Sullivan at the outset of his ruling declared the filibuster rule an "important and controversial" issue.

"As plaintiffs allege, in recent years, even the mere threat of filibuster is powerful enough to completely forestall legislative action," the judge wrote. "However, this court finds itself powerless to address this issue ..."

The Democratic plaintiffs in the case are Reps. John Lewis, Michael Michaud, Henry Johnson and Keith Ellison. The defendant Senate officials are U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senate Secretary Nancy Erickson, U.S. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer and Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate's parliamentarian.

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