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The filibuster, i.e. an extra-constitutional obstructionist tactic - speaking about irrelevant things for hours in the Senate, trying to delay a decision, has been used by both parties throughout the U.S. history. In the 1950s and the 1960s, it was used to prevent new bills about the civil rights.

Recently, at least 10 conservative judicial nominees have been filibustered by the Democrats in the Senate - an unprecendented large number. Princeton's alumnus, the Senate majority leader William Frist, proposed the "nuclear option" based on the paradigm that it should be enough to debate a candidate for 100 hours - and a vote should follow afterwards. Today it takes 60 votes to stop a meaningless debate; according to Frist's new rules, it would take simply 51 votes in the case of judicial nominees.

Most Democrats and other left-wing forces - which also includes 95 percent of intellectually diverse Princeton University - vehemently disagree. Everyone should be allowed to speak for hundreds of hours and maybe for years. It is vital for democracy to obstruct and delay nominees that the correct people do not like - much like it is important for bureaucrats to slow everything down as much as possible (these slowing procedures are usually extremely efficient and in many cases more annoying than a "no" vote). For example, it is important to read random pages from Introduction to Elementary Particles by David Griffiths for more than 50 hours.

Edward Witten and Chiara Nappi are not the only ones - Frank Wilczek is having a great filibustering time in Princeton, too. ;-) See also the filibuster webcam and program in Princeton. I was explained that the last sentence was "unnecessary".

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reader Fyodor Uckoff said...

Dear Lumo, I think it's disgraceful that your freedom of speech has been curtailed in some way. *But* I don't agree with the way you are reacting to this situation. By being so mysterious you are not letting your readers judge for themselves what has happened. The best procedure would be a simple statement of the facts, without any judgement as to whether what has happened to you is fair or not. Let the readers judge for themselves. If you have been instructed that you can't even do *that*, this would be even more shocking, and you should tell us that.
Meanwhile, keep up the good work of telling us what is happening physicswise at Harvard!

reader betsythedevine said...

Dear Luboš -- I agree with Fyodor that you should be free to say what you want! Me too, so I'll just add that "conservative nominees" are not being blocked. 95% of Bush's judicial nominees have been approved without filibuster. The issue is whether Bush should be free to nominate activist judges so offensive to the minority party that Democrats resort to this very unwieldy tactic. I'm uneasy with losing a national tradition that helps promote compromise and restrains the arrogance of power. Or, to quote Frank, "In physics, we learn that having definite rules is important." All best, Betsy

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Betsy,

thank you very much for your message. It's not quite certain whether I can write the following, but let me try:

The Senate in particular is, indeed, a place where decisions should *not* be made by the committees of the political parties - which effectively means the party that has a majority - but by intelligent individuals that respect the rights of the minority, and so forth.

And yes, these methods have been kind of neutral in their effect throughout the history.

But sometimes it may just happen that a new "hole" in the previous rules is invented, and it must be fixed. This the process by which the constitution and other good laws have been found in the first place.

There is a risk that the filibuster - as a new, popular idea - could be used to veto virtually everything. And I don't mean just the proposals of the GOP - it's almost guaranteed that if the GOP loses majority, it will revenge by similar tools. If these things became frequent, the system would be broken, I think.

The Senate may have a different logic behind its composition, but it's still true that morally, the everyday decisions should be made by 50 or 51 senators, not by 60 senators. If the limit were 60, it should be written in this way.

If a judge is "so offensive" to a party, then one should still note that this fact is a relation between *two* subjects, not just one. Maybe, it says more about the party than about the judge. I personally don't believe that a judge can be "so offensive" and yet be accepted by the GOP senators. The GOP club is a pretty diverse group - would you agree that not everyone is a right-wing Christian fundamentalist?

And although I am not a Christian in a non-trivial, spiritual way, it just does not sound right to me that a whole (and pretty important, although a minority) group of people (Christians) should be denied the right to become a judge, especially if they have kind of won all the recent U.S. elections, if one exaggerates a little bit.

I think that you know very well that this is not about the right of the minority party to express their opinion and contribute their votes to a decision; it is about its right for universal power, its right to veto anyone - or, alternatively, it is about the rights (e.g. the right to become a judge) of the people who do not enjoy the support of a certain political party.

I am sure that this comparison won't be popular - but in the history, there have been many other political parties that found certain groups of citizens so offensive that they wanted to deny them such (and other) rights. You probably know how I am thinking about in the context of the 1930s, for example.

I am not saying that the situation is *completely* analogous, but it is definitely analogous in this respect, and in my opinion a political party - and it does not matter whether it's the Democrats, NSDAP, GOP, or a Communisty Party - simply should not have the right to veto a legitimate candidate that has the support of the majority. And the filibuster effectively gives them this power.

All the best

reader Arun said...


For your consideration:

"Prior to 1996, when the Senate majority and the president were from opposing parties, senators usually deferred to the president with respect to lower-court judicial nominations. With the notable exceptions of the 1968 Fortas nomination and a failed Republican filibuster of H. Lee Sarokin in 1994, neither party filibustered the other's judicial nominations, and virtually all nominees received a hearing unless they were sent up after the presidential nominating conventions.

All this changed in 1996. Rather than openly challenge President Clinton's nominees on the floor, Republicans decided to deny them Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. Between 1996 and 2000, 20 of Bill Clinton's appeals-court nominees were denied hearings, including Elena Kagan, now dean of the Harvard Law School, and many other women and minorities. In 1999, Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch refused to hold hearings for almost six months on any of 16 circuit-court and 31 district-court nominations Clinton had sent up. Three appeals-court nominees who did manage to obtain a hearing in Clinton's second term were denied a committee vote, including Allen R. Snyder, a distinguished Washington lawyer, Clinton White House aide, and former Rehnquist law clerk, who drew lavish praise at his hearing -- but never got a committee vote. Some 45 district-court nominees were also denied hearings, and two more were afforded hearings but not a committee vote.

Even votes that did occur were often delayed for months and even years. In late 1999, New Hampshire Republican Bob Smith blocked a vote on 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Richard Paez for months by putting an anonymous hold on the nomination. When Majority Leader Trent Lott could no longer preserve the hold, Smith and 13 other Republicans tried to mount a filibuster against the vote, but cloture was voted and Paez easily confirmed. It had been over four years since his nomination. "


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