Sustained Outrage

Why judicial nominees don’t get votes

With Congress in recess until after the Nov. 2 election, there won’t be any movement on confirming any federal judges for a while, unless President Obama considers recess appointments, which is probably fight he doesn’t want to pick. (Presumably, he has enough headaches already.)

But I wanted to point out two very informative pieces by Jack Betts of the Charlotte Observer, which provide a terrific window into the tactics being used to slow the pace of confirmations to a crawl, and the effect on the federal judiciary. The use of secret holds to block nominees has “crippled the administration of justice in courts across the land,” Betts wrote. “Political intransigence on one side or the other has delayed the consideration of badly needed judges for many years, in this state and elsewhere.”

The Oct. 2 column, titled “Senate’s Judicial Graveyard,” continues:

You can argue all evening over which party is worse about it or where it began, but the fact is that both the Democrats and the Republicans bear responsibility for the failure of the Senate even to act on some judgeships, let alone reject them. For years it kept North Carolinians off the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, even though this state is the largest of the five states in the 4th Circuit. It’s an important court, handling something like 99 percent of the federal appeals that come from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia. In 208 years, the state had had only seven judges on the court.

Political rivalries and petty payback kept N.C. judges off that court and out of N.C.’s federal courtrooms, too. But this time, it’s not only politics. It’s pigheadedness.

Let’s look at the 16-year-old history of this sorry episode: In 1994, 4th Circuit Judge Dickson Phillips went on senior status, and President Bill Clinton nominated U.S. District Court Judge Jim Beaty of Charlotte for the vacancy in 1995. But then-Sen. Jesse Helms, no doubt peeved because Democrats had blocked one of his nominees for a judgeship, sat on the Beaty nomination. The 4th Circuit court didn’t need any more judges, Helms said.

This back-and-forth prevailed for years. When Democrat John Edwards was elected to the Senate in 1998, he blocked Helms’ nominees, and Helms blocked Edwards’ nominees for judgeships. One encouraging note of bipartisanship came after Helms left the Senate, and Edwards and Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole backed Allyson Duncan for the 4th Circuit and she was confirmed.

But when Republican Sen. Richard Burr joined Dole in the Senate, their nominees for the 4th Circuit – District Judges Terrence Boyle and Robert Conrad – were blocked. Boyle’s nomination was controversial, but both he and Conrad deserved a Senate vote one way or the other. They didn’t get it. That was the Democrats’ failure, a childish, obstinate refusal to vote on two experienced judges who are regarded as tough but fair jurists.

When Barack Obama became president, this much changed: The state’s two senators, incumbent Republican Burr and newly elected Democrat Kay Hagan, backed both of the president’s N.C. nominees for the 4th Circuit. They were N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Jim Wynn (who had been blocked by Helms when President Clinton nominated him in 1999) and N.C. Superior Court Judge Albert Diaz. Wynn, a Navy veteran, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly. Diaz, a Marine Corps veteran who specializes in business cases, was unanimously approved.

But for months their nominations swung slowly in the wind. Democrats asked for unanimous consent in the Senate to move on the noncontroversial nominations. Republicans were disinclined to agree to that, suggesting that Democrats schedule a vote as part of the normal debate process, which takes a lot longer. That resistance was part of a slowdown on judicial consideration that Republicans in the Senate quietly imposed – perhaps in hopes of stalling Democratic nominations in case they win the Senate after the midterm elections Nov. 2.

In a follow-up post on his blog on Monday,  Betts answered a question that many, myself included, have wondered as many of the president’s nominees have languished on the Senate’s agenda without getting votes: Why don’t the Democrats use their substantial majority to push the nominees through? Why doesn’t Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) simply override the threat of a filibuster and schedule votes for nominees at his discretion?

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No judicial confirmations until after the election

In case you missed it, the 111th Congress adjourned this week to allow members to hit the campaign trail, meaning that there will be no movement on any of the 23 judicial nominees currently awaiting senate approval until after the Nov. 2 election.

In response, President Obama fired off a strongly-worded letter, expressing his disappointment that more of his nominees haven’t been confirmed. As he has previously, Obama specifically referred to Albert Diaz, a North Carolina judge up for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. and the New York Times’ political blog The Caucus both had items on the president’s missive.

Here’s the letter, via the New York Times:

THE WHITE HOUSE Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release September 30, 2010


September 30, 2010

The Honorable Harry Reid
Majority Leader
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable Patrick J. Leahy
Judiciary Committee
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Republican Leader
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable Jeff Sessions
Ranking Member
Judiciary Committee
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator Reid, Senator McConnell, Senator Leahy, and Senator Sessions:

I write to express my concern with the pace of judicial confirmations in the United States Senate. Yesterday, the Senate recessed without confirming a single one of the 23 Federal judicial nominations pending on the Executive Calendar. The Federal judiciary and the American people it serves suffer the most from this unprecedented obstruction. One in eight seats on the Federal bench sits empty, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has declared that many of those vacancies constitute judicial emergencies. Despite the urgent and pressing need to fill these important posts, a minority of Senators has systematically and irresponsibly used procedural maneuvers to block or delay confirmation votes on judicial nominees – including nominees that have strong bipartisan support and the most distinguished records. The minority has even been blocking non-controversial nominees – a dramatic shift from past practice that could cause a crisis in the judiciary.

The Judiciary Committee has promptly considered my judicial nominees. Nonetheless, judicial confirmation rates in this Congress have reached an all-time low. At this point in the prior Administration (107th Congress), the Senate had confirmed 61% of the President’s judicial nominations. By contrast, the Senate has confirmed less than half of the judicial nominees it has received in my Administration. Nominees in the 107th Congress waited less than a month on the floor of the Senate before a vote on their confirmation. The men and women whom I have nominated who have been confirmed to the Courts of Appeals waited five times longer and those confirmed to the District Courts waited three times longer for final votes.

Right now, 23 judicial nominees await simple up-or-down votes. All of these nominees have the strongest backing from their home-state Senators – a fact that usually counsels in favor of swift confirmation, rather than delay. Sixteen of those men and women received unanimous support in the Judiciary Committee. Nearly half of the nominees on the floor were selected for seats that have gone without judges for anywhere between 200 and 1,600 days. But despite these compelling circumstances, and the distinguished careers led by these candidates, these nominations have been blocked.

Judge Albert Diaz, the well-respected state court judge I nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, has waited 245 days for an up-or-down vote – more than 8 months. Before becoming a judge, Diaz served for over 10 years in the United States Marine Corps as an attorney and military judge. If confirmed, he would be the first Hispanic to sit on the Fourth Circuit. The seat to which he was nominated has been declared a judicial emergency. Judge Diaz has the strong support of both of North Carolina’s Senators. Senator Burr has publicly advocated for Judge Diaz to get a final vote by the Senate. And just before the August recess, Senator Hagan went to the floor of the Senate to ask for an up-or-down vote for Judge Diaz. Her request was denied.

We are seeing in this case what we have seen in all too many others: resistance to highly qualified candidates who, if put to a vote, would be unanimously confirmed, or confirmed with virtually no opposition. For example, Judge Beverly Martin waited 132 days for a floor vote – despite being strongly backed by both of Georgia’s Republican Senators. When the Senate finally held a vote, she was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit unanimously. Jane Stranch was recently confirmed by an overwhelming majority of the Senate, after waiting almost 300 days for a final vote. Even District Court nominees have waited 3 or more months for confirmation votes – only to be confirmed unanimously.

Proceeding this way will put our judiciary on a dangerous course, as the Department of Justice projects that fully half of the Federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020 if we continue on the current pace of judicial confirmations. The real harm of this political game-playing falls on the American people, who turn to the courts for justice. By denying these nominees a simple up-or- down vote, the Republican leadership is undermining the ability of our courts to deliver justice to those in need. All Americans depend on having well-qualified men and women on the bench to resolve important legal matters – from working mothers seeking timely compensation for their employment discrimination claims to communities hoping for swift punishment for perpetrators of crimes to small business owners seeking protection from unfair and anticompetitive practices.

As a former Senator, I have the greatest respect for the Senate’s role in providing advice and consent on judicial nominations. If there is a genuine concern about the qualifications of judicial nominees, that is a debate I welcome. But the consistent refusal to move promptly to have that debate, or to confirm even those nominees with broad, bipartisan support, does a disservice to the greatest traditions of this body and the American people it serves. In the 107th Congress, the Judiciary Committee reported 100 judicial nominees, and all of them were confirmed by the Senate before the end of that Congress. I urge the Senate to similarly consider and confirm my judicial nominees.


If the president’s polite concern sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

Here’s a thought: What if, during the five-week recess, the president nominated a flurry of candidates for the federal bench? This would accomplish two things. First, it would preempt Senate Republicans for blaming the lack of confirmations — which, as I and others have noted before, is creating a judicial vacancy crisis — on the president and the relative scarcity of his nominations.

But more importantly, it would send the message that President Obama cares about the federal judiciary, that it is a priority for his administration, and he is not going to let the Republicans thwart his nominees just by using obstructionism to run out the clock.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder published an op-ed in the Washington Post today, decrying the “confirmation crisis” that has seen the number of federal judicial vacancies double during President Obama’s time in office. “The federal judicial system that has been a rightful source of pride for the United States — the system on which we all depend for a prompt and fair hearing of our cases when we need to call on the law — is stressed to the breaking point,” Holder wrote. He noted that 259,000 civil cases and 75,000 criminal cases were filed in federal courts in 2009, enough to strain the court system even without almost one in eight judgeships sitting empty.

The problem is about to get worse. Because of projected retirements and other demographic changes, the number of annual new vacancies in the next decade will be 33 percent greater than in the past three decades. If the historic pace of Senate confirmations continues, one third of the federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020. If we stay on the pace that the Senate has set in the past two years — the slowest pace of confirmations in history — fully half the federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy recently noted, the “rule of law is imperiled” if these important judicial vacancies remain unfilled. In 2005, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called on Congress to return to the way the Senate operated for over 200 years, and give nominees who have majority support in the Senate an up-or-down floor vote.

I agree. It’s time to address the crisis in our courts. It’s time to confirm these judges.

Holder’s reference to Justice Kennedy came from an article in the Los Angeles Times about the increasingly politicized confirmation process, and how the battles over nominees has “spread like a virus” from the appeals courts to the district courts, according to one observer. Here’s the entire passage pertaining to Justice Kennedy:

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, on hand for the 9th Circuit retreat, took note of the confirmation conflicts without assigning guilt to either political faction.

“It’s important for the public to understand that the excellence of the federal judiciary is at risk,” Kennedy said. “If judicial excellence is cast upon a sea of congressional indifference, the rule of law is imperiled.”

Holder’s piece also mentions Albert Diaz, the North Carolina judge up for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, who was nominated by Obama in November, passed (unanimously) out of committee in January, and, as I noted last week, now holds the dubious distinction of having the longest active wait for a confirmation vote.

In other confirmation news, over on, Dahlia Lithwick and Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond and a friend of Sustained Outrage, took “one last crack at scaring your pants off with some strictly nonpartisan facts about the dangers of judicial vacancies” in their article “Vacant Stares: Why don’t Americans worry about how an understaffed federal bench is hazardous to their health?”

And the Alliance for Justice published a report yesterday that focused on judicial emergencies, noting that almost half (48) of the 103 current openings have been declared by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The 4th Circuit opening that Diaz has been nominated to is one of those emergencies, which means that West Virginia, as part of the 4th Circuit, is among the 30 states affected.

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On Wednesday, in remarks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual awards gala, President Obama brought up Albert Diaz, his last remaining nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, citing the North Carolina judge as an example of how Republicans (specifically Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.) have delayed confirmation votes for his nominees.

Here’s what the president said:

Right now, there are 21 judges who’ve been held up for months while their courts have sat empty.  Three of them are outstanding Latinos, like Judge Albert Diaz, who I nominated to the Fourth Circuit Court.  He’s been waiting for 10 months.  This is a widely respected state court judge, military judge, and Marine Corps attorney.  He was approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee.  But just last month, the Senate Republican leader objected to a vote on his confirmation yet again.  And when he was asked why, he basically admitted it was simply partisan payback.  Partisan payback.

We can’t afford that kind of game-playing right now.  We need serious leaders for serious times.  That’s the kind of leadership this moment demands.  That is what we need right now.  Because when I get out of this town and I’m meeting with people, talking to folks, nobody is asking me, “Hey, Barack, which party is scoring more points?”  Nobody is saying, “Oh, don’t worry about us, I just want you to do what’s best for November.”

As I pointed out on Tuesday, some people are calling the current number of vacancies in the federal judiciary a crisis. Diaz, who was approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 28, has now been waiting longer than any other judicial nominee still pending.

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Does America care about the judicial vacancy crisis?

The Senate returned from its August recess yesterday, and spent part of the day discussing the nomination of Jane Branstetter Stranch, a Tennessee lawyer up for a seat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. When they took up a vote, Stranch was confirmed by a margin of 71-21. (West Virginia Sen. Carte Goodwin, who spoke on behalf of his late father in Charleston on Monday morning, hustled back to Washington in time to vote in favor of Stranch’s confirmation.)

Stranch passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Nov. 19, meaning that she had to wait almost 10 months before getting a vote. With her confirmation, the dubious distinction of the longest pending nomination passes to Albert Diaz, a North Carolina judge tapped for the 4th Circuit and approved by the Judiciary on Jan. 28. As I’ve noted before, Diaz went through the nomination and hearing process together with James A. Wynn Jr., another Tarheel nominated for the 4th Circuit. But in a somewhat inscrutable move, the Senate confirmed Wynn but not Diaz just before the August recess.

President Obama took office almost 20 months ago. In that time, 43 of his nominations to the federal bench (including two Associate Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court) have been confirmed by the senate. As this Judicial Selection Snapshot prepared by the Alliance for Justice points out, Obama’s two immediate predecessors met with considerably more success during their first 20 months in office. At the same point in their tenures, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had nominated 123 and 122 judges respectively. At the end of August, Obama had secured 40 confirmations, compared with 83 by Clinton and 74 by Bush II.

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Senate confirms Wynn but not Diaz

Last night, after the Senate confirmed Elena Kagan to become an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, it also approved four federal judges, including North Carolina Judge James A. Wynn Jr. to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Wynn’s confirmation means that 13 of the 15 seats on the 4th Circuit are now occupied, the highest number for the very busy appeals court in years. It also, the Greensboro News & Record rightly points out, gives North Carolina a much-deserved second judge on the court. North Carolina is the biggest state in the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction (which also includes West Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia), and has been under-represented since Judge James D. Phillips Jr. took senior status in 1994. In fact, Wynn will fill Phillips’ seat, which has been unoccupied for 16 years.

Yesterday’s confirmations, however, did not include North Carolina Judge Albert Diaz, who, like Wynn, was nominated for a seat on the 4th Circuit by President Obama on Nov. 4. Diaz and Wynn appeared on the same panel together before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and passed out of committee together on Jan. 28. Ironically, Wynn garnered one vote against him in committee, while Diaz was approved by a unanimous, 19-0 vote.

James Wynn and Albert Diaz are not a package deal, and their fates need not be tied together just because they have moved through the confirmation process at the same time. But it is hard to see the logic of confirming one and not the other without someone coming forward to raise a specific objection to Diaz’s qualifications.

Most likely, the lack of action on Diaz is meant to serve as a reminder from Republicans that they will continue to slow-walk President Obama’s nominees through the confirmation process. There are still 103 vacancies in the federal judiciary, and that number has hovered around 100 for months, even as nominees sit in the pipeline.

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Six months and counting for Diaz and Wynn

As of today, it has been exactly six months since the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nominations of two North Carolina judges for seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. But the entire Senate has yet to take a vote on James A. Wynn and Albert Diaz, who mustered one single nay vote between them as they passed out of committee, thanks in part to anonymous holds.

Earlier this month, the Greensboro News & Record noted that after Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., took to the Senate floor to lobby on behalf of her state’s nominees, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spelled out why he refused to sign off on putting Wynn and Diaz to a vote. He was upset with President Obama’s recess appointment of Dr. Donald Berwick to the post of Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Democrats did not schedule so much as a committee hearing for Donald Berwick. The mere possibility of allowing the American people the opportunity to hear what he intends to do with their health care was reason enough for this administration to sneak him through without public scrutiny.

Given the President has been so dismissive of the Senate’s right to provide advice and consent under the Constitution, I am not inclined at this point to consent to the request proposed by my friend from North Carolina. Therefore, Mr. President, I object.

Today, President Obama noted that he discussed confirming judicial nominees with McConnell during a meeting with Republican leaders.

[D]uring our meeting today, I urged Senator McConnell and others in the Senate to work with us to fill the vacancies that continue to plague our judiciary.  Right now, we’ve got nominees who’ve been waiting up to eight months to be confirmed as judges. Most of these folks were voted out of committee unanimously, or nearly unanimously, by both Democrats and Republicans. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that they were qualified to serve.  Nevertheless, some in the minority have used parliamentary procedures time and again to deny them a vote in the full Senate.

If we want our judicial system to work — if we want to deliver justice in our courts — then we need judges on our benches. And I hope that in the coming months, we’ll be able to work together to ensure a timelier process in the Senate.

Now, we don’t have many days left before Congress is out for the year. And everyone understands that we’re less than 100 days from an election. It’s during this time that the noise and the chatter about who’s up in the polls and which party is ahead threatens to drown out just about everything else.

But the folks we serve — who sent us here to serve, they sent us here for a reason. They sent us here to listen to their voices. They sent us here to represent their interests — not our own. They sent us here to lead. And I hope that in the coming months, we’ll do everything in our power to live up to that responsibility.

A few months ago, I wrote that four months seemed to be the standard amount of time that appelate judges had to wait to get a vote in the Senate. Well, Diaz and Wynn have blown past that mark, thanks in part to the time and energy devoted to Elena Kagan’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. But they’re not even the worst off: Jane Branstetter Stranch, a Tennessee judge up for a seat on the 6th Circuit, has been left in judicial limbo since Nov. 19.

Sen. Byrd: God’s gift to West Virginia

In this Feb. 6, 1979, file photo Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W, Va., plays the fiddle for his grandchildren as he relaxes at home in Washington. They are, from left, Mary Anne Moore, Erik Fatemi, Frederik, Frederik Fatemi, Michael Moore, Mona Byrd Moore and Darvis Fatemi.

Here’s one of Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s last “Byrd’s-eye View” newspaper columns:

This year, 2010, is the fortieth anniversary of the premier of John Denver’s musical tribute to West Virginia as “almost heaven.”

When I think of Denver’s classic song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” (which was co-written with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert) I think about the things that make West Virginia so unique. First, of course, is the kind and generous nature of the people of our beloved state. Next, I picture the beauty and serenity of our mountains. They seem sacred, and, in fact, mountains are a frequent location for events in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. It was on Mt. Sinai that God revealed himself to Moses and gave Him the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:16 and 20:17). God allowed Moses to view the Promised Land from a mountain. It was on Mt. Carmel where Elijah challenged the false prophets of Baal, and, on Mt. Ararat that Noah’s Ark came to rest (Genesis 8:4).

Some of the most important teachings of Jesus, as well as the critical events in His life took place in the mountains. The Transfiguration of Jesus, one of the most important Miracles, took place on a mountain, probably Mount Tabor (Luke 9:28-43). It was on Mount Olives that Jesus instructed His disciples (Matthew 24:3). The third temptation of Christ took place on a mountain, so that Jesus could see the kingdoms of the world. (Matthew 4:8-9). And, of course, Jesus delivered perhaps His most important Sermon, the “Sermon on the Mount,” from a hillside, where he also gave us the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 5-7). Jesus gave His life for our salvation and was crucified on a hill, Golgotha (Calvary).

Throughout the Bible, examples of the powerful and mystical significance of mountains can be found. For example, Isaiah 25:6 tells us of the celestial banquet on Mount Zion that is a symbol of eternal happiness, and the coming of the Kingdom of God. And one of my favorite passages from the Bible, Psalm121:1, reads: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

Contemplating the use of mountains and hillsides as symbols in Holy Scripture, underscores what a special gift our mountains are for the people of West Virginia. Majestic, inspiring, and, at times, intimidating, our mountains remind us of the glory of the view after the challenge of the climb. Perhaps that is why West Virginians retain a stalwart and independent character, always inspired by possibilities and undaunted by difficulties.

Sen. Byrd speaks: A look backward

In this Jan. 30, 1974, file photo Senate Majority Whip Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., says his ambition is to be the Senate’s next majority leader in Washington. Byrd carried himself like a man from another century. Dead Monday, June 28, 2010, at age 92, he very nearly was. His words seemed to spring from the flourish of a quill pen dipped in ink. He could channel Cicero and recite the names of all British monarchs in order.

On March 21, 1980, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd launched a unique historical project – an unprecedented series of addresses on the Senate’s history and operations. These essays, later revised and published, became the centerpiece of the Senate’s 1989 bicentennial commemoration (From The Soul of the Senate site):

Clio being my favorite muse, let me begin this evening with a look backward over the well-traveled road of history. History always turns our faces backward, and this is as it should be, so that we might be better informed and prepared to exercise wisdom in dealing with future events.

“To be ignorant of what happened before you were born,” said Cicero, “is to remain always a child.”

So, for a little while, as we meet together in this hallowed place, let us turn our faces backward.

Look about you. We meet tonight in the Senate Chamber. Not the Chamber in which we transact our business daily now, but the Old Senate Chamber where our predecessors wrote the laws before the Civil War. Here, in this room, Daniel Webster–he moved about the Chamber from time to time–Daniel Webster orated, Henry Clay forged compromises, and John C. Calhoun stood on principle. Here, Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Senator Benton ripped open his coat, and said, “Let the assassin fire!” And, “Stand out of the way.” Here the eccentric Virginia Senator John Randolph brought his hunting dogs into the Chamber, and the dashing Texas Senator, Sam Houston, sat over here to my right; he sat at his desk whittling wooden hearts for ladies in the gallery. Seated at his desk in the back row, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was beaten violently over the head with a cane wielded by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who objected to Sumner’s strongly abolitionist speeches and the vituperation that Sumner had heaped upon Brooks’ uncle, Senator Butler of South Carolina.

The Senate first met here in 1810, but, because our British cousins chose to set fire to the Capitol during the War of 1812, Congress was forced to move into the Patent Office Building in downtown Washington, and later into a building known as the Brick Capitol, located on the present site of the Supreme Court Building. Hence, it was December 1819 before Senators were able to return to this restored and elegant Chamber. They met here for 40 years, and it was during that exhilarating period that the Senate experienced its “Golden Age.”

Here, in this room, the Senate tried to deal with the emotional and destructive issue of slavery by passing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. That act drew a line across the United States, and asserted that the peculiar institution of slavery should remain to the south of the line and not spread to the north. The Missouri Compromise also set the precedent that for every slave state admitted to the Union, a free state should be admitted as well, and vice versa. What this meant in practical political terms was that the North and the South would be exactly equal in voting strength in this Chamber, and that any settlement of the explosive issue of slavery would have to originate here in the Senate. As a result, the nation’s most talented and ambitious legislators began to leave the House of Representatives to take seats here in the Senate Chamber. Here, they fought to hold the Union together through the omnibus compromise of 1850, only to overturn these efforts by passing the fateful Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

The Senators moved out of this room in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War. When they marched in procession from this Chamber to the current Chamber, it marked the last time that leaders of the North and South would march together. The next year, the South seceded, and Senators who had walked shoulder to shoulder here parted to become military officers and political leaders of the Union and of the Confederacy.

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In this April 12, 2007 file photo, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., is pictured with American bald eagle “Challenger” on Capitol Hill in Washington, during the announcement of a resolution for American Eagle Day, which would celebrate the recovery and restoration of the American bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States.

This is a speech Sen. Byrd delivered on Jan. 6, 2009, to mark his 50 years in the U.S. Senate:

“In my multi-volume history of the Senate, I noted that the Senate is ‘the anchor of our Republic.’  It is, I wrote, ‘the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation.’ Today, I recall those words because I am even more convinced that the Senate still stand[s] as the great forum of constitutional American liberty. For five decades, I have seen this Senate weather the storms of adversity, withstand the barbs of cynics, and the attacks of critics as it provided continual stability and strength to our country during periods of strife and uncertainty.”

“The Senate has served our country so well because great and courageous Senators have always been willing to stay the course and keep the faith. And the Senate will continue to do so as long as there are members who understand the Senate=s constitutional role and who zealously guard its powers.”

“It has been said that this institution has a life of its own. That may be true, but I also know, from my half century of service in this chamber, that the life of the U.S. Senate is rooted in the character of the men and women who serve in it. During my five decades, I have served with some of the greatest Senators in history. This distinguished list includes my mentors, Senators Richard Russell, Lyndon Johnson, John Stennis, and Mike Mansfield. It includes the great Margaret Chase Smith who never hesitated to follow her conscience, Barry Goldwater and Phil Gramm, who were spear carriers for the Reagan Revolution, and those giants of the Senate, Howard Baker and Mark Hatfield, both of whom exemplified stunning political courage. And, of course, any list of Agreats must include our beloved Ted Kennedy, who went from being an adversary to my dearest friend. It has been an honor to have served with these Senators, and so many others who contribute to making the Senate the great institution that it is. I hope and I pray that in my 50 years here, I have also made a positive contribution and that I will continue to do so.”

“Because of the good people of West Virginia, my half century of service in this chamber has allowed the foster son of an impoverished coal miner from the hills of southern West Virginia, to have the opportunity to walk with Kings, meet with Prime Ministers, and debate with Presidents. And I have had the privilege not only to witness, but also to participate in much history. From the apex of the Cold War to the collapse of the Soviet Union, from my opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to my role in securing the funds for the building of the memorial to Martin Luther King, from my support for the War in Vietnam to my opposition to Mr. Bush=s War with Iraq, I have served here and I have loved every minute of it.”

“My half century of service in the U.S. Senate has also allowed me to experience profound changes in this institution, and, unfortunately, not all of them have been for the best. During my tenure, especially in recent years, this chamber has become bitterly partisan. All of us already know this, so I will not belabor the point other than to say that we should do better. But I will point out that we must do something about the vitriol before it destroys the Senate and the people=s faith in us.”

“If anyone thinks that I am exaggerating, I=ll give you just one example. The filibuster is a prime guarantee of the principle of minority rights in the Senate. It is a device by which a single Senator can bring the U.S. Senate to a halt if that Senator believes his cause is just. But our partisan warfare has often transformed this unique, fundamental Senate tool into a political weapon which has been abused. As a result, there have lately been efforts to abolish it. If this should ever happen, a vital and historic protection of the people=s liberties will be lost, and the Senate will cease to function as the one institution that has provided protection for the views and prerogatives of a minority.”

“I lament the ever increasing costs of running for a Senate seat. In 1958, Jennings Randolph and I spent a combined $50,000 to win the two Senate seats in West Virginia. Today, Senators can expect to spend about $7 million. Too much of a lawmaker’s time and energy are now consumed in raising money for the next election.”

“I lament that too many legislators in both parties continue to regard the chief executive in a role much more elevated than the framers of the Constitution ever intended. The framers did not envision the office of president as having the attributes of royalty. We, as legislators, have a responsibility to work with the chief executive, but it was intended for this to be a two-way street. The Senate must again rise up and be the co-equal branch of government which the Constitution intended.”

“I lament the decline of the thoroughness of Senate committee hearings. In his classic study, Congressional Government, Woodrow Wilson pointed out that the Ainforming function of Congress is its most important role. This was revealed in 1973, when, after eight days of hearings, and hours upon hours of questioning, L. Patrick Gray, President Nixon’s nominee to be director of the FBI, revealed that White House Counselor John Dean had lied to FBI investigators, thus beginning the unraveling of the Watergate cover-up. This could not happen today with the time restrictions in Senate hearings.”

“But, I am pleased to say that, during my half century in the Senate, there have also been many positive changes in the Senate. I will only mention a few. First is that the Senate has become more open and more constituent friendly. This was highlighted in 1986, when television cameras were finally installed, and Americans across the country could watch their Senators debate the issues of the day on C-Span. I am proud to have been a part of this innovation.”

“During my tenure here, the Senate has become more open, and it has become more diverse. When I came here in 1959, there was only one female Senator. In the 111th Congress, there are 17 women in the Senate. In the 50 years prior to my service, not a single African American was elected to the Senate. During my 50 years here, three African Americans have been elected to the Senate. I know that this is a small number, but one of those three has now been elected to the highest office in our land, President of the United States. We have come a very long way.”

“Mr. President, let me conclude my remarks by simply acknowledging that it has been a wonderful 50 years serving in this ‘ great forum of constitutional American liberty’ and that I look forward to the next 50!”