Time for a Beer Summit Between Coburn And Mikkanen

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The Republican senator from Oklahoma and the American Indian judicial nominee who he's blocking can sit down at my table any time.
coburnstatue.banner.reuters.jpgSen. Robert Menendez, the Democrat from New Jersey, got grief, and rightfully so, when he put a hold earlier this month on the judicial nomination of U.S. Magistrate Patty Shwartz for a spot on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The senator said at the time that he was unimpressed with Shwartz's knowledge of the law. Media reports, however, suggested that Menendez's opposition to Shwartz had more to do with magistrate's personal relationship with a federal prosecutor who had led a 2006 corruption investigation into Menendez. Awkward!

I have consistently railed against Republican senators who hold up President Barack Obama's judicial nominees for no good reason. For example, I haven't shut up about the lingering candidacy of a worthy man named Arvo Mikkanen, whose nomination in Tulsa has been held up, without explanation, by Tom Coburn, one of Oklahoma's Republican senators.

But two wrongs just make a larger wrong -- the major difference between what Menendez did to Shwartz and what Coburn has done to Mikkanen could be the extent of their candor -- and a funny thing happened on the way to Shwartz's failed judicial nomination. Under political pressure, Menendez agreed to meet with her again and, following their meeting, agreed to drop his reservations against the candidate.

Her nomination now moves on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it may or may not come up for a hearing, and then perhaps on to the floor of the Senate, where it may or may not be brought up for a vote. Daunting, I know. But at least her nomination isn't dead like Mikkanen's appears to be.

The story of Menendez's well-timed and ultimately productive epiphany got me thinking again about about Coburn and Mikkanen. When asked last year what he knew about the nominee that was precluding his support, Coburn said: "I know plenty." In the intervening 11 months, however, he has not unpacked what he meant. Evidently, the political pressure brought to bear on Menendez does not exist in the case of Coburn. No one seems to care enough about Mikkanen to press Coburn for an explanation.

Is it because Mikkanen is a Native American, who would be only the third recorded American Indian federal judge in the 222-year old history of the judiciary? Is it because Mikkanen went to Dartmouth and Yale Law School? Is it because he clerked for two federal judges or has long been a member of the U.S. Attorney's Office? Is it because of his affiliation with the Oklahoma Indian Bar Association? Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Mikkanen is the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes?

Maybe Coburn just doesn't like the way Mikkanen knots his ties. We just don't know. But it's just not good enough, at a time when Oklahoma is short-handed on its federal bench, to allow Coburn to say, ominously, "I know plenty," without ever letting the rest of us in on the secret.

So here's my bright idea: If Menendez could meet with Shwartz to air things out, why can't Coburn meet with Mikkanen? Heck, I'll even host a dinner party for the two and I will fly the distinguished pair here at my expense for the good and welfare session.

In fact, I'll triple-down. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy is responsible for the odious "blue ship" practice that allows politicians like Coburn to block judicial nominations from their home state without ever having to explain why. I'll fly Leahy, the Democrat from Vermont out here, too, and he can explain to Mikkanen why this archaic and self-defeating practice continues in the Senate. Between the three of us, perhaps we could find a way for Mikkanen's nomination to be evaluated on its merits, where it belongs.

And what's three without four? While I'm at it, I'm also inviting someone from the White House -- it doesn't have to be the president, but that would be nice -- to sit down at my table and explain why the Obama Administration has expended so little political energy fighting for Mikkanen. Let's say there are roughly three million American Indians and Native Alaskans in America today. Do these folks not deserve more than one Native American judge currently on the federal bench? Do any of the president's nominees waiting in limbo deserve some help?

The Menendez-Shwartz story is one of redemption and of getting, ultimately, to the right answer. This ought to happen here, too. Coburn owes Arvo Mikkanen an explanation, the White House owes him a defense, and the Senate Judiciary Committee owes him a hearing. Moreover, the American people, and especially the people of Tulsa, deserve to know why their elected officials cannot fill that long-standing judicial vacancy with a guy like Mikkanen. It's time to get the principals together to do what's right. Let's break bread, Menendez-style.
 
Image credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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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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