Judicial Nominee Arvo Mikkanen Deserves Answers

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Dear Washington:

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Arvo Mikkanen.

I am sure you don't know me, especially if you don't live in Oklahoma. I grew up there, graduated from Yale Law School, returned to practice in the state and currently serve as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Oklahoma City. There, I have represented the United States in court in over 475 cases, both criminal and civil. Not that it should matter, but I am of Finnish descent, and Native American, too, and if confirmed by the Senate I would become only the third Native American federal judge in the nation's history. I am the current president of the Oklahoma Indian Bar Association and I clerked successfully for two federal judges when I was younger.

A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama placed my name into nomination for a vacant federal trial seat in Tulsa, Oklahoma. However, it appears as though the White House did not first consult about its choice with Oklahoma's Congressional delegation. Evidently, this is a breach of longstanding political protocol and, as a result, the two Republican senators in Oklahoma, as well as the lone Democratic House member there, immediately denounced my nomination. At the time, Sen. Tom Coburn called me "unacceptable for the position" and said he had "serious concerns" about me. Last week, he pronounced my nomination "dead."

There was something else the senator said last week that caught my attention. When asked last week to describe why he concluded so quickly and surely that I was "unacceptable" to become a federal judge, Sen. Coburn said: "No comment." When asked if he knew me, the senator said: "I know plenty. I have no comment." (My emphasis). Now, typically, judicial nominees are supposed to keep quiet during the long period between the time they are drafted to serve on the bench and the time they are confirmed (if they are confirmed). And I am not normally someone who rocks the boat (after all, you typically don't get to spend 17 years as a federal prosecutor if you rock the boat). But this is still America, and nominee or not, I still have a right to ask questions.

The first question I have today is for Sen. Coburn. What exactly do you think you know about me that disqualifies me for a spot on the bench? The implication of your quote last week--"I know plenty. I have no comment"--implies that you believe you have some non-public information that would cast a negative pall upon my nomination. So what is it? As a dedicated public servant, someone who has worked in the federal government longer than you have, I believe I am entitled to that answer; and then to be free of the dark insinuation your comment suggests. Even on a more basic level, as one man to another, you owe me an explanation, do you not? I am quite sure the White House also would like to know your response-- and so, too, would the millions of Native Americans, including many of your own constituents in Oklahoma, who have a particular interest in my nomination.

The second set of questions is for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla), Sen Coburn and the rest of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the rest of the Senate. I would like to know whether the breach of protocol alleged against the White House in my case is why my nomination appears doomed. If that's the case, I would like to know how Oklahomans, especially those in Tulsa who have business in federal court, benefit from the Senate retaliating against the White House in this fashion. How does a further delay in filling that judicial seat help people? And if I'm not being rejected in a fit of senatorial pique, I would like to know which case I have ever worked on, or which cause I have ever promoted, makes me now "unacceptable" to be a federal judge?

Here's another question. Sen. Coburn said my nomination was "another example of how politics in Washington neglect to take into account what is best for the people of Oklahoma." But what's worse for Oklahoma or about Washington: The White House not adhering to a set of courtesies and customs or a competent nominee failing to get fair consideration before the Senate? Sen. Coburn complained about the White House's lack of professional courtesy toward him. And that's a legitimate beef. But what about the professional courtesy due to me as a judicial nominee who has dedicated his adult life to the law?

Speaking of which, I also have a few questions for White House officials, including President Obama himself, who have been sadly silent (publicly, anyway) in my defense since placing my name into nomination. First, if the allegation is true, why wasn't the Oklahoma congressional delegation notified in advance of my judicial nomination, as is typically the case? Why weren't the ordinary procedures followed? Who is responsible for the error and what steps have been taken to ensure that it won't happen again? Why would an administration that has struggled so mightily to get its judicial nominees through the Senate give Sens. Coborn and Inhofe another reason, another excuse, to reject a candidate?

Was it because administration officials believed that Oklahoma's senators would never in any event support the nomination of a Native American to the federal bench? I would like to know that. Was it because the White House wanted to use me as a pawn in some larger political game over judicial nominations? I would like to know that, too. And why the lack of a response to the attacks from Sen. Coburn? In sum, I want to know why my nomination appears to have been handled differently from all the rest.

As I write this, there are 99 vacancies in federal courts around the country, a figure which represents more than 10 percent of all such positions. I don't believe America has the luxury anymore of exalting form over substance when it comes to judicial nominations. I'm happy to meet with Oklahoma's congressional delegation to ease whatever concerns they may have about my candidacy. I urge the White House to move quickly to rectify its notification gaffe. And I hope that Sen. Coburn will either put up or shut up when it comes to dragging my good name through the mud with innuendo. Whether I become a federal judge or not, I surely deserve better than that.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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