WASHINGTON — Wendy Vitter‘s nomination for a New Orleans federal court judgeship cleared a Senate committee Thursday, overcoming vociferous Democratic criticism.
Vitter, the general counsel to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the wife of former U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, now awaits a final Senate confirmation vote on a lifetime federal district court appointment from President Donald Trump.
Democrats and civil rights groups have blasted Vitter for weeks over her refusal to endorse the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education during an April Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Vitter wouldn't say whether she thinks the 1954 case, which declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, was “correctly decided.” She did later say she doesn’t support segregation.
"I think I get into a difficult area when I start commenting on Supreme Court decisions which are correctly decided and which I may disagree with," Vitter told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who'd asked her opinion on the Brown decision.
Republicans, including Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, dismissed Democratic attacks on Vitter as "political theater." Most pointed to ethics guidelines that steer judges away from commenting on decisions that may be argued in their courtrooms.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called it a "made-up, phony issue," while GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah called the criticism "absurd" and "preposterous."
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which vets presidential picks for posts on the federal bench, was initially set to vote on Vitter's nomination last week — the 64th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education — but adjourned without taking a vote.
Democrats repeatedly invoked the anniversary while blasting Vitter and another judicial nominee, Andrew Oldham, who likewise refused to endorse the Supreme Court's decision.
Oldham, currently the general counsel to Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, is up for a lifetime position on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.
The committee also advanced Oldham's nomination on a party-line vote Thursday.
Many judicial nominees avoid directly answering questions about recent and controversial U.S. Supreme Court decisions, especially the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling which established a woman's right to seek an abortion.
But Brown v. Board of Education is considered by many to be in another class, given that it overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine that allowed systematic legal segregation and discrimination against blacks.
Vitter told Blumenthal that she feared opining on Brown v. Board might put her on a “slippery slope” of weighing in on other decisions. Blumenthal did in fact follow his questions by asking her about Roe v. Wade.
Vitter's long history of anti-abortion activism — including numerous speeches before pro-life groups — also made her a target of some left-leaning groups.
Kennedy said he suspected that at least some of the vitriol hurled at Vitter was actually directed at her husband, a polarizing figure on Capitol Hill who served 12 years in the U.S. Senate after six years in the House of Representatives.
"I think she's very bright and she'll call the balls and strikes," Kennedy said, using a baseball umpiring analogy frequently invoked by conservatives who argue for a narrow role for judges.
"I’m glad the committee looked past partisan political exercises and voted her through based on her excellent qualifications," said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana.
The Judiciary Committee also signed off on Trump's nomination of Scott Patrick Illing to serve as U.S. marshal for the New Orleans-based federal Eastern District of Louisiana. Illing, 56, is a former state trooper and retired U.S. Customs Service investigator who lives in Madisonville.
It's unclear when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring Illing's and Vitter's nominations to the floor of the Senate.
Lengthy procedural delays, some invoked by Democrats opposed to many of Trump's nominees, have stretched out the timeline for Senate confirmation for many federal officials.
McConnell has also prioritized confirming judges to influential appellate courts, moving those judges ahead of district judges and officials like U.S. attorneys and marshals in the queue for floor consideration.
Trump could soon name nominees for two other New Orleans-area federal judicial openings as well.
Kennedy told The Advocate last week that the FBI has wrapped up its background investigation into the leading potential nominee for U.S. attorney in New Orleans.
Kennedy didn't name the person, though The Advocate has previously reported — citing sources with knowledge of the appointment process — that the White House intends to tap New Orleans criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Peter Strasser.
Strasser has been under consideration since at least November, according to The Advocate's sources. Background investigations by the FBI — a prerequisite for White House nominations — can vary in length. Extensive travel or work overseas, which Strasser has done as a former U.S. official, can complicate the vetting process and cause delays.
The senator also said potential nominees to fill recently promoted federal District Judge Kurt Engelhardt's seat are currently being vetted.
Engelhardt is leaving his district court job after being confirmed by the Senate earlier this month to a New Orleans-based judgeship on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.