U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio continues to let his desire to appease Republican conservatives get in the way of sound judgment. Rubio has withdrawn his support for William Thomas' nomination to the federal bench. Thomas is an openly gay, black circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County who is opposed by Republican conservatives seemingly for his personal characteristics. Rubio's reversal is unjustified, and he should reconsider.
The senator's professed reasons for dumping Thomas are paper-thin. He claims to be concerned over Thomas' "fitness" for the bench on the basis of the judge's "judicial temperament" and questions whether Thomas is too lenient toward criminals. Rubio didn't have those concerns when he first joined Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in recommending Thomas to President Barack Obama for an opening on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida more than 10 months ago. At that time, Rubio was a rising tea party star and hadn't yet helped pass a bipartisan immigration bill that angered his conservative base.
Now his strategy to make amends to his supporters blocks the advancement of a promising jurist. Thomas came through formal vetting with no red flags. He was rated "well qualified" to be a federal district court judge by the American Bar Association, and he has the respect of his peers within the legal profession, some of whom have written Rubio in support. The League of Prosecutors, a group of current and former prosecutors based in Miami, is among Thomas' supporters.
Rubio cites two criminal cases of concern. He says Thomas went too easy on a driver in a hit-and-run killing of a bicyclist. The defendant received a 22-month sentence. That may appear lenient on the surface, but this case presented problems for the prosecution that led to lesser charges. The sentence is within the guidelines, and the lead prosecutor in the case and the administrative judge for the 11th Judicial Circuit criminal division wrote letters to Rubio defending the fairness of the sentence.
Rubio also points to a gruesome rape and murder case in which Thomas ruled a confession inadmissible because the Miranda rights of two of the five defendants were violated. An appeals court partially affirmed that judgment. All five defendants in the case were convicted or pleaded guilty, and Thomas sentenced one killer to death.
Rubio was able to veto Thomas' elevation to the federal court because the two home-state senators have to agree on a judicial nominee for the confirmation to proceed — a tradition that should be revisited if this kind of obstruction results. Thomas would have been the first openly gay African-American male on the federal bench. He would have occupied a seat that has been open for more than 18 months, and filling it has been designated a judicial emergency. Now the screening process will have to start again, apparently to find someone who passes Rubio's tea party test.