[UPDATE: Hm…well it looks like everyone in D.C. (including Feinstein herself yesterday) was wrong. So she’s sticking with her Intelligence chair. This assignment now becomes something of a “what might have been” exercise) Query: what changed? Why would Leahy not take Appropriations? Was he worried about turning Judiciary over to the more conservative Feinstein?]
Daniel Inouye, the second longest serving Senator in history, died on Monday. Inouye had represented the state of Hawaii in Congress as either a Representative or Senator since… well, forever. Inouye took office the day Hawaii became a state and never stopped. He was also an undisputed badass who wasted a German machine gun nest by prying a grenade from his own partially severed arm and throwing it at a guy trying to kill him! This was a more impressive response to having your arm severed that I would have.
But with the loss of Inouye, the Senate has to find a new chair for the powerful Appropriations Committee. Since the Democrats run on strict seniority, noted Batman enthusiast Patrick Leahy of Vermont jumped at that plum assignment.
And here’s where this all comes back to the law. By taking the Appropriations gig, Leahy had to forfeit his role as chair of the Judiciary Committee. Enter Dianne Feinstein, who will take over as the shepherd of the country’s legal policy making for the next Congress.
So what will a Feinstein-led committee look like?
Feinstein isn’t a lawyer, making her the first non-lawyer to ever chair the Judiciary Committee. Despite lacking a law degree, Feinstein has served on the committee for 20 years, which more than makes up for her never sitting through some “Law and…” class.
Feinstein has already taken the point on pushing for new gun control measures, specifically bringing back the assault weapons ban and introducing bans on high-capacity clips. Because the only guy who needs that arsenal is Daniel Inouye when he’s fighting back a Panzer division by himself.
Gun violence is personal for Feinstein. In 1978, while President of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, Feinstein heard gunshots in City Hall and discovered the body of Harvey Milk. The tragedy led to Feinstein taking over as mayor in place of the also assassinated George Moscone. As head of the Judiciary Committee, Feinstein will set the agenda for the Senate’s discussion of gun control, with her bill serving as the rallying point for gun control before hitting the eventual brick wall of House Republicans.
While her views on gun control tilt liberal, she is no firebrand. Feinstein is an ardent supporter of the death penalty and thrilled conservatives for voting against the Racial Justice Act provisions that would have allowed death row inmates to cite racial disparities in death penalty sentences as part of their appeals. She did vote to ban the death penalty from applying to minors, but overall don’t expect any thoughtful hearings on the as applied injustices of the death penalty in America on Feinstein’s watch.
Feinstein’s also a victim’s rights advocate that would make Nancy Grace proud, having co-authored the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004 with John Kyl, and unsuccessfully proposed a constitutional amendment on the subject.
When it comes to judicial nominations, Feinstein has a mixed voting record, but tends to support measures to get vacancies filled in a quick, bipartisan manner. She crossed party lines to vote for several controversial Bush administration appointees, including Leslie Southwick of the Fifth Circuit. Southwick, you might recall, met with some liberal ire because:
Mr. Southwick, as a state court judge, ruled in favor of reinstating a white woman who was fired after she called a colleague a “good ole ni**er.” He also ruled, in an especially cruel decision, that a woman should lose custody of her child because she was bisexual.
While Feinstein voted against Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, she did not join efforts to filibuster either suggesting she may not have seriously deemed either worth blocking.
Feinstein established a process in California for making bipartisan recommendations to the president for filling vacancies. As chair of the Judiciary Committee, she can use her position to garner public support for moving other states to follow her model.
So the tea leaves suggest a tough on guns and tough on crime approach to the Judiciary Committee defined in the short-term by a contentious, high-profile gun debate. Get ready for your C-SPAN close-up Dianne!
Joe Patrice is the author of Recess Appointment, a blog about political rhetoric, and he’ll be dropping in occasionally to write about the intersection of law and politics. To answer the question that you’re probably about to ask, he got his J.D. at NYU and spent ten years working at a Biglaw firm and a white-collar defense boutique. His favorite word is sesquipedalian.