Federal judge appointment stalled for Flanders ’71

By
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Robert Flanders ’71 has been unsure of his future as a federal judge for almost a year. Former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee ’75, who is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, recommended Flanders – an adjunct assistant professor of public policy at the University – for a seat on the First Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2006, but Flanders has not yet been formally nominated for appointment by President Bush.

On Jan. 9, President Bush presented 30 names to be considered for judicial positions around the country. Flanders, a former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice, was not included in the list. But the seat he was recommended for is still vacant.

“(The candidacy) is really in limbo,” Flanders said. “(The White House) has yet to act on this vacancy.”

After the White House received Chafee’s recommendation, Flanders was interviewed by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and White House Counsel Harriet Miers in April 2006. That was the last Flanders heard from the Bush administration.

“I was told not to call them, they would call me,” Flanders said.

Chafee said the appointment has been unusually problematic, but he is unsure why.

“I’ve had some conversations with many members of (Bush’s) administration,” Chafee said. “I don’t feel I’ve been dealt with squarely on this.”

Flanders said the delay might have something to do with Chafee’s relationship with the president.

“It’s very hard to get into an exclusive club when your sponsor is at odds with the admissions committee,” he said. “Senator Chafee and the president were at odds on many policy matters.”

The position Flanders hopes to fill on the first circuit – which hears cases from Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Puerto Rico – was vacated by Bruce Selya. Selya reached senior status on the court, a form of semi-retirement.

Despite the delay, Flanders’ nomination may not be on hold forever. On Jan. 4, Miers offered her resignation, leaving both Chafee and Flanders to wonder whether the appointments process will be affected.

“Maybe the new (counsel) will look more favorably on the Flanders nomination,” said Chafee.

If formally nominated as a candidate by President Bush, Flanders would require confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Though Flanders is a Republican, he is popular on both sides of the aisle. According to Chafee, Rhode Island’s current Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse are supportive of Flanders’ bid.

“Justice Flanders is a solid pick and a worthy successor to Judge Selya,” Reed said in a press release when Flanders was first recommended last year. “He has a keen legal mind and has demonstrated an understanding of the law’s role in society.”

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Whitehouse will play a role in judicial appointments.

“Senator Whitehouse is working with his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee and with Senator Reed … and hopes that Rhode Island’s federal court vacancies can be filled expeditiously,” wrote Whitehouse’s spokesman Alex Swartsel in an e-mail to The Herald.

Flanders’ popularity across party lines is one of the reasons Chafee believes the former R.I. Supreme Court Justice is an obvious pick for the President.

“I would think that the President would want someone who would have smooth sailing in the Senate,” Chafee said.

Thanks to this bipartisan support, Flanders’ candidacy can remain under consideration following Chafee’s defeat by Whitehouse in the 2006 midterm elections.

“I didn’t want to see Senator Chafee lose,” Flanders said. “But if he did lose, I’m happy he lost to someone as qualified as Sheldon Whitehouse.”

According to the Providence Journal, Chafee’s decision to recommend Flanders upset U.S. District Judge William Smith, another Rhode Islander who was interested in the position.

“I just don’t see his resume, at least on the merits, as good as Flanders’,” Chafee said of his choice not to recommend Smith over Flanders. Chafee had sponsored Smith as a U.S. District Judge in 2002.

Still, even after months in limbo, Flanders remains optimistic and willing to serve if appointed.

“I’m hopeful, but it’s also of concern that it’s taken this long. I’ve had no contact with the White House for a long time,” Flanders said. “I would be honored to be nominated by President Bush.”