– Judge Leslie Southwick, in response to a Washington Post headline during his confirmation struggle.
In The Nominee: A Political and Spiritual Journey, Judge Leslie H. Southwick chronicles the long path to his current seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Southwick is a former Mississippi Court of Appeals judge, former deputy assistant attorney general in the first Bush Administration, and Iraq war veteran. He was recommended by Mississippi senators for a Fifth Circuit vacancy in 1991 and 2004, for a district judgeship in 2004 and 2006, before his final nomination in 2007. He initially appeared to be an uncontroversial nominee. However, a fierce partisan battle in the Senate threatened his eventual success. The Nominee follows Southwick’s tortuous path, relying on the judge’s day-by-day personal notes.
Southwick’s account is fascinating on its face. He drops names on every page, and it’s exciting to trace the earlier steps of those who would become legal luminaries in later years. For those only generally familiar with the way that federal judges get made — a process resembling in unsettling ways how sausage gets made, Southwick notes — the book provides an education in both the official and the unofficial processes. The book will certainly satisfy in excruciating detail the curiosity of anyone who wonders exactly how stubbornly political the judicial confirmation process has become.
Notably, the book shows just how long the process can be. Before he clears the Senate Judiciary Committee vote, before his nomination even reaches the Senate floor, Southwick writes that the day “was a double anniversary of my seeking a position on the Fifth Circuit. In my diary, I wrote, ‘Tuesday, 10 July. Sixteen years today since this started,’ meaning that I learned on July 10, 1991, that Judge Charles Clark was retiring. In addition, the 1991 date was exactly sixteen years after I wrote my July 10, 1975, letter applying to clerk for Judge Clark.” Judges, whether made the right way or not, are not made overnight.
None of this is what makes the book most worth reading, though — and it certainly is worth reading . . . .
The Nominee is, at its core, a study in ambition and its effects. The thread that weaves through every chapter is Southwick’s indefatigable wish to become a Fifth Circuit judge. We as readers see that Southwick wants the job, and he wants it badly.
Most of us are never so vulnerable as when we want something badly. Rarely are we so ill-behaved as when we do. Longing often reverts us to our basest selves. So, Southwick’s relative good behavior while gunning for the federal bench suggests a lot about his temperament. The vulnerability he offers the reader makes him and his journey more relatable, more human. He could have written a bare factual account, safely penned from the position of a guy whom history eventually favored. Instead Judge Southwick clothes himself in the frail humanity of someone who badly wanted something that he wasn’t sure he would get.
Southwick’s vulnerability is disarming in parts. He writes at one point, when the process had stalled, “This ordeal, this unceasing rejection and delay, has drained me. Now there is just an emptiness [ . . . ] That is pique, but it also seems like emotions that I would guess arise in a divorce. In a few painful words, my guess is that I do not matter. And that is the cruelest cut of all.” Shortly thereafter he observes, “I had bottomed out. I was self-absorbed, self-pitying, and out of patience.” At another, he writes simply, “Whine, whine.” Though seeing a prominent jurist reduced to this sort of self-criticism may seem odd, it is refreshing. If you have wanted something out of reach, you too have felt this.
His ambition balances against a persistent humility — or, at minimum, Southwick’s persistent sense that he must seek humility. Southwick is a practicing Catholic, an adult convert to the faith that moors him. It shows, in the least obnoxious way. After serving his tour in Iraq, Southwick reflects, “Among the truths that I see more clearly than before is that every day is a gift; that nearly every difficulty in life can be transformed into an opportunity which has arisen from ‘our great good fortune’; that the motives of people with whom I disagree will almost always be at least as virtuous as my own; and that regardless of rewards of money or prestige or other earthly advantages, every moment with family is the real treasure.” Were readers not privy to Southwick’s internal struggles as he arrives at this moment, his reflections might seem trite and cloying. Here they do not.
The book is not a dry and plodding read, though it conveys the exhausting length of the journey well. The prose is tight and clean, like you would hope for from a seasoned appellate judge, but maybe fear you would not get. But it’s funny too. Much of Southwick’s struggle to get past the Judiciary Committee centered on the initial insistence of Democratic Senator Pat Leahy and others who preferred to see an African American nominee in Southwick’s place. Though criticism simply because of one’s race is gutting, Southwick retains his humor. He writes, “A law school colleague, Professor Matt Steffey, wrote me about an article that had mentioned Senator Kohl and [the basketball team he owned], the Milwaukee Bucks. The article concerned Kohl’s interest in trading for some players from the San Antonio Spurs. I responded: ‘Thanks for putting Sen. Kohl’s concerns in perspective. Leahy and the NAACP want me to be black. Sen. Kohl might be more favorable if I were tall.’”
Throughout the book, Southwick is witty without being overly clever. The man’s warmth and geniality come through on the page. After Southwick’s nomination clears committee and reaches the Senate floor, Arlen Specter explains Southwick’s ultimate success with the committee by saying “many people helped, but the key person was [Southwick himself] and how [he] came across to people. Nice.”
In documenting his experiences as he has, Judge Leslie Southwick provides an informative history of the judicial nomination process, but he also humanizes a journey most of us will never take. No matter what you might have thought of the judge’s jurisprudence or political affiliations prior to reading the book, by the end of The Nominee, you want to confirm Leslie Southwick.
The Nominee: A Political and Spiritual Journey [Amazon (affiliate link)]
Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. After graduation, she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She will be working at the Center for Legal Pedagogy at Texas Southern University during the 2013-2014 academic year. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at email@example.com