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Michigan Democratic Senators dig their heels in over President Trump's judicial nomination

Joan Larsen faces a tangled path to a plum spot on a federal appeals court. The only thing standing in her way is Michigan’s two U.S. Senators.

Joan Larsen is a Michigan Supreme Court justice. She was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder.

She’s popular with Michigan Republicans and Democrats and she’s recently been nominated by President Trump to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

It’s a court that has made some big decisions like in 2014 when it ruled on Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban.

It was the only federal appeals court in the country to uphold a state ban on same-sex marriage. That decision famously sent the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Larsen was on President Trump’s list of possible U.S. Supreme Court nominees when he was candidate Trump. So, this nomination is no surprise.

But, the position must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate where there is a courtesy known as the “blue slip.” The tradition dates back at least 100 years and it allows senators from a nominee’s home state to give a ‘yea’ or a ‘nay’ on the nominee.

Michigan’s two Democratic U.S. senators - Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters - have done neither. They have yet to return their blue slips on Joan Larsen.

And that is holding up the Senate confirmation process.

It has become a political issue. A conservative group called the Judicial Crisis Network has spent at least $140,000 on an ad that calls the delay “partisan politics.”

And, maybe it is partisan politics. But, it’s not new.

Just last year in fact, in the Sixth Circuit, President Obama nominated a state Supreme Court Justice from Kentucky. And, guess what? Both Republican Senators from that state - Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul - held on to their ‘blue slips.’

It wasn’t until President Trump was sworn in and nominated a different candidate that they turned in the slips. So, are we seeing a little payback here?

The ‘blue slip’ is the minority party’s only card since Senate Democrats ended the option of filibustering lower court nominations.

So now, Michigan Senators Stabenow and Peters seem to be compiling their own list of potential federal court nominees. A recent joint release invites people to “apply” through their offices to fill vacancies on federal courts here in Michigan.

Next move, Republicans?

There’s talk the Senate committee chair could simply ignore the ‘blue slip’ process and allow the nomination to go forward. It’s a tradition, not a law. But, it would be a big deal to suddenly change a Senate courtesy after a century.

Trump could also withdraw the Larsen nomination and name someone from a state in the Sixth Circuit with Republican senators. Tennessee and Kentucky both fit that bill.

It’s a game of political chicken. We’ll see how far it goes.

Listen here to our Stateside interview with Cynthia Canty on this very topic.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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