Tuesday, July 21, 2015

CQ follows the money on Tom Cotton's blockade of federal judges

Posted By on Tue, Jul 21, 2015 at 10:37 AM

Todd Ruger of CQ Roll Call follows up on Sen. Tom Cotton's solo blockade of five nominees to vacant seats on the federal court of claims — an obscure court that is nonetheless very important to business for deciding federal contract disputes and tax claims.

Ruger notes that Cotton's action dovetails with interests of a former conservative law firm for which he worked and which contributed to his political campaigns.

Cotton, ignoring a plea from the chief judge of the Court of Federal Claims, objected on the Senate floor last week to a Democratic request to allow confirmation votes for five nominees to that court. Those judges hear disputes about government contracts and tax refund suits.

Conservative law firm Cooper & Kirk, where Cotton worked in 2004, sells itself as the “go-to firm” to sue the government in the biggest of cases and is currently representing several clients in cases before the court. The firm's employees were contributors to Cotton in 2012 and in 2014, making about one third of their total campaign contributions in 2014 to Cotton.

Interests align in other ways for the conservative Cotton, Senate Republicans as a whole, and the boutique law firm. The court now is lopsided with Republican appointees: eight Republicans to three Democrats. That includes a former Cooper & Kirk attorney, Victor Wolski, whose time at the firm coincided with Cotton's.

Maybe a dip in caseload (judges say cases are more complex) and taxpayers' savings aren't the only reasons Cotton objected to unanimous consent on filling vacancies on the court. Maybe he likes the cooking of the current lineup of chefs. Home cooking.

Cotton alone blocked the confirmations indefinitely, perhaps for good during the Obama term. Big cases are at issue. Writes Ruger:

Billions are in the balance in the Federal Claims court lawsuits that sometimes get to the Supreme Court. But the cases are contract disputes that affect big businesses and lack the cultural and constitutional issues that make other courts more high-profile.

In the court, for example, Cooper & Kirk represents Harbinger Capital Partners, which says Congress passed a law forbidding the firm from using a multiple billion-dollar nationwide cellular network built in reliance on a government contract. Earlier, the firm represented United Launch Alliance in a challenge to the Air Force's award to SpaceX of a five-year, $11 billion contract for 27 rockets to launch national security satellites.

Cotton suggests a judge has told him the current court can handle cases. That person has not been identified, while numerous judges and bar officials have spoken of the need for filling the vacancies. Based on research by Glenn Sugameli of Judging the Environment, a court monitoring project, an educated guess on Cotton's source would be Victor Wolski, Cotton's former colleague. He forthrightly said every job he ever took prior to his confirmation was ideologically orientated to further limited government, individual liberty and property rights. A Cotton clone, in other words. None of Cotton's concerns were raised in four previous Senate votes by the Judiciary Committee to confirm the nominees.

If affirmative action matters (of course it doesn't to Republicans), Cotton's roadblock is preventing the confirmation of Armando Omar Bonilla, who'd be the first Hispanic to serve on the court.

Cotton is a ruthless ideologue who'll stop at nothing to prevent an even-handed judiciary. He at least should be honest about it, if he's the principled sort he claims to be.

Should a Republican be elected president and a different slate of nominees emerge for the court, I wonder if Cotton's view on the need for help will hold?

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