Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) won’t support President Joe Biden’s pick for a trial court seat in his state, setting up the first test for Democrats on home-state senator support for district court nominees.
Johnson indicated Tuesday he wouldn’t support the nomination of Judge William Pocan to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, saying the Green Bay legal community wanted a nominee who was “locally based and actively involved in their community.”
“I look forward to working with President Biden on selecting a suitable nominee,” Johnson said in a statement.
Pocan, brother of Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), is a deputy chief Judge of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. Pocan was nominated by Biden after Johnson and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) included his name on a list of four candidates they recommended to the White House in June. The senators used a bipartisan nominating commission to identify candidates, according to a statement from Baldwin after Pocan’s nomination in December.
Johnson’s decision challenges Senate Democrats commitment to a norm that district court picks require home-state senator support to advance. Senators indicate this support by returning a document known as a “blue slip.”
But Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has reserved the right to make exceptions if a senator opposes a nominee for reasons that aren’t merit-related like their gender or sexual orientation.
At a Wednesday Judiciary hearing where Pocan was supposed to testify, Durbin didn’t address whether Johnson’s decision would result in a change in the process.
“I also hope that Senator Johnson’s position is not an indication of any procedures to come in the future. Let me just leave it at that. It would be a disservice to litigants to the administration of justice and to judiciary,” Durbin said.
Durbin expressed frustration with Johnson’s communication on Pocan’s nomination. The Judiciary chair said Johnson’s office didn’t respond to four separate communication attempts over the course of nearly a month and learned that he wouldn’t support Pocan secondhand on Tuesday night.
“Such a lack of communication is unacceptable and frankly disrespectful to the nominee and his family,” Durbin said.
Baldwin said she was “deeply disappointed” with Johnson’s decision.
“I will be speaking with Chairman Durbin later. I certainly hope in the meantime, that upon learning how incorrect he was, that Senator Johnson will review his decision and sign a blue slip,” Baldwin said on Wednesday.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates called Johnson’s decision “unfortunate” and “without foundation.”
“Judge Pocan is as deeply qualified today as he was when Senator Johnson recommended him to the President for this exact vacancy in June,” Bates said.
Bates cited Pocan’s “Well Qualified” rating from the American Bar Association and noted that Pocan would make history as the first LGBTQ federal judge in Wisconsin.
—with assistance from Zach Cohen