As most readers will be aware, Congress is now heading out of town until the New Year. Although your blogger is remaining in Washington for the duration, he's predicting with some certainty a series of slow news days. With that in mind, he's anticipating fewer posts in the next couple of weeks, but he hopes readers will bear with him and return in the New Year.
Happy Holidays to all.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Democratic senators sought assurances today from Deputy Attorney General nominee Mark R. Filip that he would ensure that the Justice Department aggressively investigates the CIA's destruction of interrogation tapes.
Filip (pictured), currently a federal district judge in Chicago, pledged that he would do so during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He even conceded under pressure from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that he would consider pushing for a special prosecutor.
"If that's what I thought the law and justice required then, yes," Filip responded.
Kennedy said a special prosecutor may be needed because the Justice Department may not be sufficiently independent.
Like Attorney General Michael Mukasey when he appeared before the Senate earlier this year, Filip refused to say whether waterboarding constitutes torture.
Filip described it as "repugnant" to him personally but declined to speculate further, citing the fact that Mukasey is currently conducting a review of the issue.
Although some Democrats were not best pleased with Filip's responses, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chair of the committee, made it clear that he expects Filip to be confirmed swiftly.
He even suggested that Filip could serve in an acting capacity in anticipation of confirmation.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Last night the Senate finally passed a bill that will improve security for federal judges.
As the House as already passed its own version of the bill - which is largely the same - sponsors are expecting a smooth transition to President Bush's desk.
The bill in question, the Court Security Improvement Act, increases penalties for threatening or harming judges.
The issue of judicial safety has gained momentum in recent years after the murder in 2005 of the mother and husband of Chicago U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow.
The bill also increases sentences for witness tampering.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said today he was glad to have fulfilled his promise to pass the bill before the end of the year.
"The Senate has waited far too long to enact this legislation to protect those who guard justice in our court system," he added.
Monday, December 17, 2007
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is currently holding forth on the Senate floor in what most seem to think will be a doomed attempt at filibustering the surveillance overhaul bill.
His beef is with the provision that would grant legal immunity to the telecom companies that cooperated with the Bush administration's secret surveillance program.
The long-shot presidential candidate (pictured) doesn't appear to have enough support from his colleagues to stop the surveillance bill from progressing.
Earlier today, Dodd suggested that his main motivation is to put a check on presidential power.
"Is this about our security or his [President Bush's] power?" he said. "It's the key to understanding why this administration is pushing so hard for telecom immunity."
Judging by Dodd's campaign website, he is hoping his stand on the issue will help him in the polls.
See today's Daily Journal (subscription only) for more on the judicial salaries legislation, including some reaction from former federal judges Dickran Tevrizian, of California, and Paul Cassell, of Utah.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
The House Judiciary Committee approved a salary increase for the federal judiciary today, but in a last minute change, the amount of the pay raise was reduced.
A district court judge would now earn $218,000 if the bill passes Congress, an increase of 31 percent on the current salary.
Judges would also receive a cost-of-living adjustment each year, which they haven't had in the past.
The original bill called for a $233,000 salary; judges currently earn just over $160,000, about the same as a first year associate at a big law firm.
Republicans on the committee also pushed for language that would deter judges from leaving the bench for high-paying jobs in the private sector.
Under a provision suggested by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, judges would lose a dollar of their pension for every two dollars they earn above their old salary, down to baseline of 33 percent of their judicial pay.
This proposal won the backing of Democrats, including Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif. (pictured), a leading sponsor of the bill.
"The federal judiciary is not a stepping stone to a high paying career," he said. "It's supposed to be a capstone. So we have created a disincentive."
Not everyone supported the change, including Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who said the pension change could be unconstitutional.
"There will be a lawsuit," he predicted.
The Senate version of the legislation, which is on the judiciary committee's agenda for tomorrow's markup, would bump salaries up to almost $248,000.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
While the Supreme Court considers the rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees in Boumediene v. Bush, the Democrats today sought to keep the issue in the spotlight.
The forum was a Senate Judiciary Commmittee hearing chaired by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Feinstein wanted to know more about the current procedures being used at Guantanamo in the wake of critical comments made by Colonel Morris Davis, until recently the Department of Defense's chief prosecutor there.
Morris said, for example, that the administration was playing politics with the trial process in the hope it could achieve some high profile convictions in time for the 2008 elections.
The administration stopped Davis from testifying today.
"I have to conclude that by prohibiting Col. Davis from testifying, the administration is trying to stop a fair and open discussion about the legal rights of detainees," Feinstein said.
Speaking on behalf of the administration, Brigadier General Thomas W. Hartmann, the top legal adviser in the Office of Military Commissions (pictured above), denied that there had been any inappropriate political interference.
He added that detainees currently held at Guantanamo get more rights than any other prisoners-of-war in history.
"The rights provided under the Military Commissions Act are absolutely unprecedented," Hartmann said.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
This morning the Senate Judiciary Committee voted out a bill that would permit TV cameras to enter the Supreme Court.
The 11-7 bipartisan vote is the second time the committee has passed such legslation in recent years.
It's part of an attempt by some lawmakers to put pressure on the Supreme Court to be more transparent about its proceedings.
In the previous Congress, the bill never progressed any further and there are currently no plans for it to go to a vote on the Senate floor.
But today's vote at least gave supporters the chance to raise the issue again.
Committee chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said he gave his backing to the bill after Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., declined a request from him and ranking Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvannia to allow cameras access when justices are announcing rulings from the bench.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., voiced strong opposition to the move, citing disaproving comments made by several justices.
"They believe the dynamic is harmed by the presence of cameras," she said.
The commmittee is also considering a bill that would televise proceedings before both federal district and appellate courts.
A planned vote didn't go ahead today when sponsor Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, asked for more time to gather support.
UPDATE (6.15pm): A committee spokeswoman says that today's commmittee vote will have to be ratified at next week's meeting.
"To satisfy some committee procedural items ... they will need to ratify the vote next week," she said this evening.
In today's print edition of the Daily Journal (subscribers only), I reported that Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is holding up a federal judicial security bill.
At issue is a provision championed by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., which would expand the administrative powers of senior judges.
Specter told me after this morning's Senate Judiciary Commmittee meeting that he is hopeful of resolving the issue.
"I'm going to talk to Senator Sessions and see if we can iron that out," he said. "It's not exactly a core problem."
He added that the intent of his amendment is to give judges more encouragement to take senior status.
"We have a tiny amendment to give senior judges the same standing to do things like appointing magistrates," Specter said. "If we did that we could get people to take senior status and appoint more judges."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the commmittee, reiterated this morning his desire to have the Senate pass the bill before the end of the year.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Former GOP congressman James E. Rogan is not about to withdraw his name from consideration for a federal judicial vacancy despite the opposition of one of his home state senators in California.
In today's print edition of the Daily Journal (subscribers only), Rogan, who serves as state judge, said he has no plans to withdraw and stressed that he has the full support of the White House.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has made it clear she opposes the nomination, meaning there's little chance of it proceeding any further.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
With the Senate due to debate Thursday legislation that would update the nation's surveillance laws, privacy advocates are concerned that the press is paying too much attention to the immunity question.
The bulk of coverage of the bill has indeed been on whether Congress should grant the phone companies retroactive immunity for cooperating with the Bush administration when it launched its secret spying program after September 11, 2001.
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a privately-funded privacy rights group, is desperately trying to focus attention on other provisions of the bill that will regulate what exactly the government can do and who gets to authorize it.
Greg Nojeim, the group's senior counsel, said at a briefing this morning that the most important part of the bill concerns who authorizes the surveillance.
"In six years time, we won't be looking at immunity as the big issue," he said. "The big issue will be how the surveillance affected Americans."
Nojeim and his colleagues fear that with all the focus on immunity, other important provisions will not get the same attention on the Senate floor this week, making it more likely that what they view as flawed legislation could pass.