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 # 406  

May 2002




Senate Puts Black Arkansas Jurist at the Back of the Bus


by David Almasi

Bill Clinton used the fact that he was born in Hope, Arkansas to campaign for president as the "man from Hope" - using the name of his birthplace to enhance his image.

Lavenski R. Smith, a trailblazing black jurist, is another son of Hope. Unlike the former President, Smith was not just born, but also raised in Hope. There's another difference: Smith isn't blessed with Clinton's skill at advancing himself. Smith's current nomination to a federal judgeship, in fact, is "hopeless." At least until the liberals controlling the Senate quit stalling.

On May 22, it will be a full year since President George W. Bush nominated Smith for a seat on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Like those of almost ninety other men and women, Smith's nomination hangs in limbo.

Still smarting from the 2000 elections and their loss of the White House, liberal Senate leaders are using the one-vote majority they gained by the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) from the Republican Party to deliberately slow the judicial confirmation process. They want to be a partner in selecting nominees even though the Constitution gives that duty to the President. Until they get what they want, however, they are content to throw the American judicial system and the lives of nominees such as Smith into chaos.

It's not as if Smith isn't qualified. He once represented Arkansas's poorest residents as a staff attorney for Ozark Legal Services. He later opened the first minority-owned and operated law firm in Springdale, Arkansas. He served on the faculty of John Brown University and was a regulatory specialist in the Arkansas governor's office. He was also an associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1999 and 2000, in between his two terms on the Arkansas Public Service Commission (of which he was chairman during his first term).1

W.H. "Dub" Arnold, chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, said of Smith: "He is a great man. He's very intelligent... I think he'll make a great federal judge."2 Arkansas NAACP president Dale Charles said: "He's a fine person individually, and in his time on the Supreme Court he represented himself and the court well."3 The state NAACP supports Smith's nomination.

It's not as if the seat Smith was nominated for is unimportant. In 1997, 8th Circuit Judge Richard S. Arnold testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need for a full complement of judges. He said, "With the court facing a steadily increasing caseload and the largest backlog of cases in its history, it is clear that unless the 8th Circuit retains the 11th judgeship, litigants... will face increasing delays in having their cases heard."4

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, considered it a "crisis" when the number of backlogged Clinton nominees was lower than it is now. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he sided with candidate Bush on streamlining confirmations, saying: "I have agreed with Governor Bush, who has said that in the Senate a nominee ought to get a vote, up or down, within 60 days."5

After a year, Smith has yet to get a hearing, much less a vote.

Since the presidency of Jimmy Carter, over 85 percent of each President's circuit court nominees received full Senate votes within the first two years of the President's term. The percentage thus far for President Bush is only 27.6 percent.6 The vendetta against Bush's judicial nominees is undeniable.

Liberal senators have made it clear they don't find conservative judicial nominees acceptable, and conservative nominees of color seem even more unwelcome. Commenting on this prejudice, ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said liberal senators "will simply not accept a Hispanic, an African-American or even women who do not toe the line of the left."7

One thing is clear: Justice is not being served. President Bush has the constitutional right to nominate judges. For senators to refuse them a simple up-or-down vote is tantamount to throwing the Constitution out the window. And disrespecting a proud black American such as Lavenski R. Smith should be a crime.

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David W. Almasi is the executive director of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a non-partisan Washington, D.C. think tank. He can be reached at [email protected].



Footnotes:

1 Biography of Lavenski R. Smith, Office of Legal Policy, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://www.usdoj.gov/olp/smithbio.htm on April 30, 2002.
2 Support for Lavenski R. Smith, Office of Legal Policy, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://www.usdoj.gov/olp/smithsupport.htm on April 30, 2002.
3 Ibid.
4 Christopher Rosche, "Courts in Crisis? Hatch Playing a Role in Empty-Bench Mess; Hatch at Center for Bench Fight," Salt Lake Tribune, September 8, 1997, downloaded from http://www.judicialselection.org/asp/quotesearch.asp on April 30, 2002.
5 Title page, Judicialselection.org, Judicial Selection Monitoring Project, Free Congress Foundation, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://www.judicialselection.org on April 30, 2002.
6 "Percent of Circuit Court Nominees Receiving a Floor Vote During a President's First Two Years in Office" (graph included in published version of address by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), "The State of the Judicial Confirmation Process"), Heritage Lectures #740, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, April 30, 2002.
7 "GOP Wants Minority Judges Confirmed," Associated Press, April 10, 2002.




 


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