Federal judges gridlocked as Oregon Senators vie with White House
Major federal posts in Oregon remain vacant as a constitutional standoff continues between Oregon's two U.S. senators and the White House.
Though President Donald Trump has already nominated someone to fill a lifetime opening on the influential U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a committee set up by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, has been reviewing the credentials of 11 applicants for the appellate job as if that nomination never happened.
The committee is reviewing 20 potential federal district court nominees as well.
Meanwhile, a final decision on whether Oregon U.S. Attorney Bill Williams will be replaced has not been announced, with Wally Hicks, a former Republican state lawmaker, saying he remains in the running for the state's top federal prosecutor job.
Amid the uncertainty, there's speculation that the positions will be tackled like dominos, with a decision on the prosecutor's job the last one in line.
And now, hovering above all that are the first indictments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of the Trump administration, unsealed Monday. It's unclear if the charges filed against a top Trump campaign official and two other campaign aides will increase the pace of nominations, or increase the resistance to presidential nominees.
The odd situation has its roots in the U.S. Constitution's requirement that the White House gets to fill judgeships with the "advice and consent" of the U.S. Senate. In practice, that has meant home-state senators have been able to veto judicial nominations.
Early this year, Oregon's only Republican congressman, Greg Walden, recommended that Trump pick Ryan Bounds to fill the post vacated by Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain on Jan.1. Bounds, a member of the conservative Federalist Society, is a federal prosecutor and former White House adviser whose sister works for Walden.
Bounds sparks squabble
But on Sept. 7, shortly after Trump formally nominated Bounds, Wyden and Merkley issued a letter vowing to block his nomination until a bipartisan committee reviewed his credentials, which they characterized as an Oregon tradition. They noted that they had already offered their support of District Judge Marco , who was nominated by two former presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, before being confirmed.
Since then, there has been ample speculation of whether Senate Republicans would ignore Wyden and Merkley and instead choose a judge from another state to fill O'Scannlain's job, arguing that multi-state appellate courts should not be subject to home-state Senators' vetos. Although by tradition, O'Scannlain's seat was one of two held by Oregon on the 29-judge 9th Circuit, it wouldn't be unprecedented for the post to be filled by someone from one of the other states overseen by the Ninth Circuit, such as Idaho, Montana or Alaska.
There's also been pushback on using a review commission for the job. A former top aide to former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, Kerry Tymchuk, told a conservative website that in the past, the bipartisan review committee set up by Oregon U.S. senators only looked at Oregon-only federal district court judgeships, not the multi-state Ninth Circuit.
And, on Sept. 19, a group of 15 Oregon state senators, including Democrats Betsy Johnson, Lee Beyer and Arnie Roblan, sent a letter expressing support of Bounds.
Regardless, the choice of U.S. attorney may not happen until the judicial nominations are settled.
During a visit to Portland last month. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke positively of Williams, an unaffiliated voter supported by Merkley and Wyden.
Hicks, a candidate to unseat Williams, said he hasn't received a formal interview, "But I am still operating with the understanding that I am still under consideration."
Applications to the judicial review committee chosen by Wyden, Merkley and Walden were due Oct. 1 In all, 11 candidates applied for the Circuit Court job, while 20 filed for a district court job created when Judge Anna Brown stepped down.
The commitee is chaired by former Oregon Insurance Commissioner Cliff Bentz, and includes Oregon Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario as well as lawyers Keith Dubanevich, Bryan Lessley, Jennifer Middleton Lori Murphy and Jane Paulson.
As the committee continues its work, one political source who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Tribune that negotiations may be afoot over giving Bounds a district court position in exchange for naming Hernandez, the senators' pick, to the higher appellate court.
Meanwhile, the White House has reportedly formally initiated a vetting process of Williams, causing some to speculate his odds of remaining in the U.S. Attorney post are on the rise.
In any event, a Wyden spokesman said it will be up to the judicial review ommittee how many names will be forwarded to Trump as best qualified for the appellate and district court jobs.