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Judiciary Committee pivots after GOP senator opposes home-state nominee

An Eastern District of Wisconsin nominee fell off the lineup for a hearing Wednesday after the Republican senator from his home state withheld approval of the judicial pick.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The blue slip took center stage yet again Wednesday as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson's refusal to approve a nominee for his state's Eastern District federal court forced the Senate Judiciary Committee to nix the judge from their hearing lineup.

Judge William Pocan was scheduled to appear before the panel Wednesday alongside three other nominees to the federal bench until Johnson, a Republican, announced late Tuesday he would not return the blue slip, a paper given to home-state senators to sign off on nominees.

"Since Judge Pocan’s nomination, I have been hearing concerns from the Green Bay legal community that they needed a judge who is locally based and actively involved in their community. That is not the case with Judge Pocan," Johnson said in a statement.

Pocan does not live in Green Bay where one of the district's two courthouses are located. He has been with the Milwaukee County Circuit Court since 2006, most recently as a deputy chief judge.

As a reason for not supporting Pocan, Johnson also referenced the November attack during a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which was perpetrated by someone who was out on $1,000 bail for domestic violence charges. Though that factor has brought scorching criticism of Milwaukee County district attorneys, Pocan had no involvement with the defendant's case. Before joining Milwaukee courts, Pocan was in private practice for over 20 years.

"The tragedy in Waukesha never should have happened," Johnson said. "That it did, is the direct result of soft on crime low bail policies and court orders. I cannot support someone for a lifetime appointment that has granted low bail for someone charged with violent felonies. That is not in the best interest of Wisconsinites nor Americans. I look forward to working with President Biden on selecting a suitable nominee.”

This is the first time during Biden's presidency that a home-state senator has refused to return a blue slip on a district court nominee, putting Democrats in a tricky position of having to either scrap Pocan's nomination or nix a long-held tradition of deference to home-state senators on district court nominees.

Republicans did away with blue slips for federal appeals court vacancies during the Trump administration, and Democrats during the Biden administration have so far followed their lead on circuit court nominations, much to the dismay of GOP members.

But Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, has repeatedly expressed his allegiance to the blue-slip process for district court vacancies, though he skirted providing a clear answer regarding the future of Pocan's nomination on Wednesday.

"I want to discuss this with Senator Baldwin," Durbin said, noting that Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, and Johnson had put forward Pocan late last year as one of four potential nominees, all of whom were selected by a bipartisan state commission.

"Let me emphasize that point — Senator Johnson is blocking this committee from proceeding on a nominee he recommended to President Biden," Biden said.

Baldwin's office said they learned about Johnson's statement from reporters after he sent it.

Tension over the blue slip and consultation of home-state senators has been a central and reoccurring theme for Senate Judiciary Committee members since the start of Biden's presidency, forcing the White House into conflict with home-state senators as Biden continues a historically fast-paced spree of nominations.

While Pocan's absence hung over Wednesday's meeting, the panel did hear testimony from three other district court nominees.

Sherilyn Peace Garnett, Biden's pick for the Central District of California and a judge on the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, and Trina Thompson, a nominee to the Northern District of California and judge on the Alameda County Superior Court, made it through the hearing with little scrutiny.

Republicans on the committee focused their energy and criticisms on grilling Nina Morrison, a nominee to the Eastern District of New York, about her role as senior litigation counsel for the Innocence Project in New York City, a position she's held for two decades.

Morrison drew praise from Democrats on the committee and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who praised Morrison's background working to exonerate innocent clients.

"For years, as we all know, our courts have been overrepresented with individuals who check certain boxes — disproportionately white men from elite institutions who worked either in corporate law firms or as prosecutors," Schumer said.

But GOP members on the committee slammed the nominee as being soft on crime and accused her of helping to release violent criminals during her time as an advisor to District Attorney of Philadelphia Larry Krasner.

"I will confess, the whole of your record is deeply disturbing. Across this country, Americans are horrified at skyrocketing crime rates, skyrocketing homicide rates, skyrocketing burglary rates, skyrocketing carjacking rates — and all of those are the direct result of the policies you spent your entire lifetime advocating," Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told Morrison.

Morrison stood firm on her assertion that as a judge she would not be an advocate and that she cared deeply about those impacted by violent crimes.

"Senator Cruz, I have worked for 20 years on cases involving some of the most horrific crimes imaginable, murders and rapes. Some of my own clients were murder victims, family members, they lost their loved ones and were wrongly convicted of killing them," Morrison said.

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