WASHINGTON — An attorney who helped Gov. Chris Christie’s administration handle fallout from the “Bridgegate” investigation was confirmed Tuesday to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, based in Philadelphia, despite vigorous objections from New Jersey’s two Democratic senators.
Paul Matey, a former deputy chief counsel under Christie, became only the second judge since at least 1979 to be confirmed while both of his home state senators opposed him — a further break with Senate tradition, which for decades has given deference to senators in both parties when it came to judicial nominees from their states.
Matey’s confirmation to the Third Circuit means the panel now has a 7-6 majority of judges appointed by Republicans, with at least one more slot for President Donald Trump to potentially fill, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond professor who tracks judicial appointments. The shift illustrates how Trump and the Republican-led Senate are reshaping the federal judiciary.
The court handles cases in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and is often the last word on major legal questions, since few issues reach the Supreme Court.
Matey, a member of the conservative Federalist Society, is the third judge Trump has placed on the court and the second one Senate Republicans have confirmed despite objections from home state Democrats. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) last year unsuccessfully tried to stop Judge David Porter from being seated.
New Jersey Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker questioned Matey’s legal views and said they were not consulted by the White House, but Matey was confirmed Tuesday in a 54-45 vote. One Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted in favor while all other senators stuck to their party line.
“Republicans claim to be the party of conservatism. Yet there’s nothing conservative about sweeping aside century-old norms for political gain," Menendez said on the Senate floor. “The people of New Jersey have no appetite for a judge who served in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.”
Republicans have argued that it was Democrats who diminished the power of minority-party senators when they changed the rules for most judicial confirmations in 2013.
“The day that you dealt yourself out as a minority to have a say about who gets on the court was the day that everything changed,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, said at a hearing on Matey and other nominees in February. “Judges are going to be more ideological, because you don’t have to reach across the aisle to get anybody’s input, and it’s going to have an effect over time on the judiciary that I very much regret.”
Graham and others Republicans have also argued that individual senators should not be able to unilaterally block nominees to circuit courts, which serve multiple states, and that the Senate’s veto is more appropriate for district court nominees, who sit in just one state. The GOP has accused Democrats of seeking to obstruct Trump appointments.
GOP senators, however, frequently used the tradition to stall or block Obama circuit court picks they found objectionable, only to change the rules under Trump.
While the exact rules have varied under different committee leaders, almost all judicial nominees since the 1950s have been confirmed with support from their home state senators, who have returned “blue slips,” signed pieces of paper meant to signal a senator’s assent. The process was meant to weed out extreme nominees and force the White House to work with senators.
The custom was strictly followed by both parties under President Barack Obama and during much of the George W. Bush administration, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.
From 1979 to October 2017, there were only three known instances of a judicial nominee receiving Senate confirmation while facing objections from one home state senator. Several such nominees, however, have advanced under Trump.
Republicans pushed the boundaries even further in late February when the Senate confirmed a circuit court judge from Washington despite the objections of both of that state’s Democratic senators. Matey followed the same path Tuesday.