The Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday kicked off the first nominations hearing of the year with a message for Republicans: We’re moving forward with one of President Joe Biden’s court picks without your consent, and it’s because you did this to us.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) scheduled the hearing for Andre Mathis, Biden’s pick for a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Durbin acknowledged that both of Mathis’ home-state senators, Tennessee GOP Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, oppose his nomination and signaled as much by not turning in their so-called blue slips to the committee.
It used to be a Senate tradition that, in the name of collegiality, the Judiciary Committee would not advance a judicial nominee until both senators from that nominee’s home state turned in a blue piece of paper signaling they were on board with doing so. But Republicans ignored that tradition for appeals court nominees when Donald Trump was president and when the GOP controlled the Senate — 18 times, to be exact — which resulted in 17 of those nominees sailing through the committee and to confirmation over Democratic objections.
What goes around comes around, Durbin basically said Wednesday.
“Republicans chose to abandon this senatorial courtesy,” said the Illinois Democrat. “Simply put, there shouldn’t be one set of rules for Republican nominees under a Republican president and a different set for nominees under a different president.”
That didn’t stop Blackburn from complaining. She said Biden’s White House “has made it clear that they intend to eliminate the role of home-state senators in the nomination process,” and said there was “no meaningful consultation” with the White House in its selection of Mathis.
The White House disputed the idea that there weren’t meaningful consultations with Blackburn and Hagerty ahead of Mathis’ hearing.
“We were grateful to discuss potential candidates for the Sixth Circuit with both Tennessee senators’ offices starting several months ago, and are enthusiastic about Andre Mathis’ historic nomination,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. “The White House regularly consults with home-state senators on both sides of the aisle regarding vacancies in their state and will continue to do so in good faith.”
A quick review of history shows Blackburn consistently voted to confirm Trump’s appeals court nominees who didn’t have blue slips turned in by Democratic senators. Since she became a senator in 2019, Blackburn voted for all 14 of Trump’s appeals court picks missing blue slips. In all cases, she voted “yes” both on a procedural step to proceed and on final confirmation.
Blackburn also voted to confirm those nominees over the objections of home-state Democratic senators who argued they had not been meaningfully consulted by the White House on their nominations.
Biden has confirmed a huge number of judicial nominees since taking office, many of whom are diverse and historic firsts on the federal bench. But Mathis, currently a partner at the law firm Butler Snow LLP in Memphis, is Biden’s first to advance from a state with two Republican senators and without the support of home-state senators.
If confirmed, Mathis, 41, would be the first Black man on the Sixth Circuit from Tennessee.
Beyond her protests over process, Blackburn said she has “serious concerns” about Mathis’ lack of experience, noting he has never been a judge or argued a case in a federal appellate court. Mathis has practiced law for about 14 years, with a focus on commercial litigation, and has done significant pro bono work with the Tennessee Innocence Project.
She also said Mathis has “a rap sheet with a laundry list of citations, including multiple failures to appear in court.” What Blackburn referred to as a rap sheet — a term for a criminal record — was actually just three speeding tickets that Mathis got more than 10 years ago, one of which was for going five miles over the speed limit. His drivers’ license was temporarily suspended when he didn’t pay them or go to court over them.
Mathis said he simply forgot to pay the tickets and didn’t realize his license had been suspended until he got a notice in the mail, at which point he paid them.
“In Tennessee, we expect our judges to respect the law,” said the Tennessee Republican. “If Mr. Mathis thought he was above the law before, imagine how he’ll conduct himself if he’s confirmed as a federal judge.”
Blackburn did not mention that it was just last year that she was pulled over by Capitol Police while riding in a car, got out of the car, informed the officer that she was a U.S. senator and flashed her congressional pin before being let go.
Durbin took issue with Blackburn’s attention on Mathis’ driving record.
“Sen. Blackburn refers to your ‘rap sheet,’ is what she called it,” he said to Mathis. “Well, if speeding tickets are a rap sheet, I’ve got one too. I never got a speeding ticket for driving five miles over the limit, which apparently is one of your tickets … We’ve all I think been guilty of that sin and perhaps all have a rap sheet that’s over six miles or more.”
Asked by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) about his professional background, Mathis said he has significant trial experience and has handled 23 appeals to conclusion in state courts, with one case currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. He said he’s been the primary drafter of briefs in the vast majority of appeals he’s handled, and has argued 10 cases before the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who joined the hearing later, said he “almost laughed” when he learned that Blackburn brought up Mathis’ driving record and referred to it as “a rap sheet.”
“I laughed with my staff that I have a rap sheet now, probably much longer than the witnesses,” said Booker, describing his experiences as the first Black family moving into his New Jersey neighborhood as a kid.
“I was pulled over quite a few more times than [my white friends] were. We all knew what it was about,” he said. “My brother and I used to think, ‘If we’re Black, you just prepare for being pulled over.’ Sometimes I was pulled over for going three miles over the speed limit, for something cracked or that looked awry on my car.”
Booker asked Mathis if he, too, experienced “driving while Black” while growing up.
“I take responsibility for my actions. I don‘t want to blame anything or anyone else for what I did,” Mathis said. “That’s what I’ll say about that.”