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Senate Judiciary Committee

SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE

The U.S. Senate established the Committee on the Judiciary on December 10, 1816, as one of the original 11 standing committees. It is also one of the most powerful committees in Congress; among its wide range of jurisdictions is investigation of federal judicial nominees and oversight of criminal justice, antitrust, and intellectual property legislation. Meeting each year since the Fourteenth Congress, the Judiciary Committee reviews a vast range of legal issues and advises the larger Senate on how to handle them. Just like any other congressional committee, it cannot pass laws or approve presidential nominees on its own, but its recommendations are highly regarded by the larger body.

Historically, initial issues before the Senate Judiciary Committee centered largely on the widespread western expansion and growth of the nation, with corresponding concerns about the role of the federal judiciary and judicial administration. Boundary disputes between states were another early concern. The issue of slavery was perhaps the most controversial, however. The committee was partially responsible for the enactment of the compromise of 1850, which included the fugitive slave act. Also, after the Civil War, beginning in 1868, the committee shared jurisdiction to oversee federal reconstruction.

The authority to investigate nominees to the federal court system is the most powerful and controversial authority delegated to the committee. Although the U.S. Constitution grants authority to the full Senate to approve judges nominated by the president, the Senate has delegated much of this responsibility to the committee since 1868. When the president submits judicial nominations, the Senate immediately submits them to the committee for consideration. The committee votes whether to approve or disapprove a nomination of a judge, and it votes whether to submit the nomination to the full Senate for its consideration. Both votes require a majority of the members of the committee. If the Senate approves a judge, he or she receives lifetime tenure on the federal bench, barring impeachment or retirement.

The nomination process of federal judges traditionally has caused a significant amount of controversy regarding the criteria that are used by committee members in determining whether to approve or disapprove a judicial nominee. Some commentators suggest that the nomination process should only involve considerations of ethics and professional competence, while others argue that the real considerations among committee members relate to the ideologies and philosophies of the nominees.

When President ronald reagan nominated robert bork in 1987 to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, it was evident from the questioning during the nomination hearing that the senators took numerous factors into account. Bork, who had been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and known for his conservative views, was selected by the Republican president to replace Justice lewis powell, whose views were more moderate. Both the committee and the full Senate eventually turned down Bork's nomination, based largely on ideology. Public-interest groups supporting or opposing Bork spent a reported $20 million in their attempts to influence the nomination. Similar questions of ideology and philosophy have been raised about the 1991 confirmation hearings for Justice clarence thomas.

The publicity surrounding the nomination process in the federal judiciary did not begin until the twentieth century. Historically, few nominees appeared before the committee. Several high-profile nominees, including louis brandeis, hugo black, and felix frankfurter, offered statements for the committee to consider. It is now common for all nominees to make statements before the committee.

With a high number of nominations to the federal judiciary, it is not uncommon for the committee to send nominations of judges in lower courts to subcommittees. This process continues to be lengthy.

Other areas of jurisdiction of the committee include legislative oversight of apportionment of representatives; bankruptcy; mutiny, espionage, and counterfeiting; civil liberties; constitutional amendments; government information; holidays and celebrations; immigration and naturalization; interstate compacts; local courts in territories and possessions of the United States; national penitentiaries; patents, copyrights, and trademarks; protection of trade and commerce against unlawful restraints and monopolies; and state and territory boundary lines.

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 (Seeseptember 11th attacks), the Judiciary Committee held a number of hearings on the issues of terrorism and homeland defense. The committee also has taken an active role in such social issues as civil rights protection, law enforcement, and reform of the criminal justice system. Controversies in 2001 extended to the cabinet nominees, including the position of attorney general. When Presidentgeorge w. bush nominated then-Senator john ashcroft (R-Mo.) for the position in 2001, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) immediately indicated that he would oppose the confirmation. While Ashcroft was eventually confirmed, he also was required to appear before the committee numerous times throughout 2001 to report on issues involving the Attorney General's Office and the justice department.

further readings

Denning, Brannon P. 2002. "The Judicial Confirmation Process and the Blue Slip." Judicature 85 (March-April).

National Archives and Records Administration. "Records of the Committee on the Judiciary and Related Committees." Available at <www.archives.gov/nara/legislative/senate_guide/sgch13.html> (accessed May 16, 2002).

Nourse, Victoria F, and Jane S. Schacter. 2002. "The Politics of Legislative Drafting: A Congressional Case Study." New York University Law Review 77 (June).

Ralph Nader Congress Project. 1975. The Judiciary Committees: A Study of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. New York: Grossman.

U.S. Senate. "United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary." Available online at <www.senate.gov/~judiciary/information.cfm> (accessed June 24, 2002).

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