Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) announced this week that he will block one of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees, William Pocan, which is weird since Johnson recommended him to the White House in the first place.
Biden nominated Pocan, a Milwaukee state judge, to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin after Johnson and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) recommended him to the White House in June. Pocan was all set to testify at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
But late Tuesday, Johnson indicated he wouldn’t turn in his so-called blue slip — literally, a blue piece of paper signaling support from a nominee’s home-state senators — for Pocan, which effectively kills his nomination. The Judiciary Committee got rid of the blue slip rule for appeals court nominees, but it still honors it for district court nominees like Pocan.
Weirder still is Johnson’s statement on why he won’t support Pocan.
“Since Judge Pocan’s nomination, I have been hearing concerns from the Green Bay legal community that they needed a judge who is locally based and actively involved in their community,” the Republican senator said. “That is not the case with Judge Pocan.”
It’s true that Pocan does not live in Green Bay, where the court seat he’s nominated to is based. But Pocan lives nearby and has said he’d relocate to Green Bay if he was confirmed, according to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
“What’s more, Sen. Johnson knew full well back in June that Judge Pocan did not live in Green Bay,” Durbin said at the start of Wednesday’s hearing, sans Pocan. “Yet that did not prevent the bipartisan Wisconsin federal nominating commission from recommending Judge Pocan to Sens. Baldwin and Johnson, and it did not prevent Sen. Johnson from joining Sen. Baldwin in recommending Judge Pocan to the White House.”
Durbin made it clear that he was not happy with Johnson’s unexpected move, and chided him for not giving the committee any notice.
“Sen. Johnson’s staff did not respond to four separate communications from my staff sent over the course of nearly a month,” he said. “Despite these efforts, my office learned second hand that Sen. Johnson would prevent Mr. Pocan from going forward at seven o’clock last night.”
“Such a lack of communication is unacceptable,” Durbin added, “and frankly, disrespectful to the nominee and his family.”
The rest of Johnson’s statement was bizarre, too. After he raised concerns about where Pocan lived, he pivoted to talking about the November 2021 attack in Waukesha, where a man drove his SUV into a Christmas parade and killed six people.
“In addition, the tragedy in Waukesha never should have happened,” Johnson said. “That it did, is the direct result of soft on crime low bail policies and court orders. I cannot support someone for a lifetime appointment that has granted low bail for someone charged with violent felonies. That is not in the best interest of Wisconsinites nor Americans. I look forward to working with President Biden on selecting a suitable nominee.”
Pocan had nothing to do with the Waukesha tragedy. Johnson spokesperson Alexa Henning acknowledged as much to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Instead, Henning pointed to a 2015 case, State of Wisconsin v. Davario D. Washington, in which she said Pocan granted a low bail to an individual charged with violent felonies. But even in that case, CNN reported that a transcript of the bail hearing showed that Pocan sided with the prosecutor who was seeking to increase the defendant’s bail to $5,000, according to the AP.
A possible explanation for Johnson’s sudden flip-flop is that he is jumping aboard a broader effort by his party to cast Democrats as soft on crime. Republican senators have been ramping up that message this week and blocking some of Biden’s nominees in the name, somehow, of standing up for law enforcement.
In one case, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Wednesday went so far as to blame another one of Biden’s judicial nominees ― Nina Morrison, a 20-year attorney for the Innocence Project who has gotten dozens of innocent people out of prison and off of death row ― for causing violence all over the country.
The only way Pocan’s nomination will move forward is if Johnson reverses course and turns in his blue slip. If Pocan did get confirmed, he would be the first LGBTQ federal judge in Wisconsin.
“I hope that Sen. Johnson will rethink his position,” Durbin said.
Johnson has a record of preventing important court seats from being filled in his state for political reasons. He previously prevented President Barack Obama from filling an appeals court seat in his state for more than six years.