U.S. Senate draws a line on a nominee's bigotry

Last week, a Trump nominee to serve on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was withdrawn from consideration. What’s notable is not simply that someone with extreme legal and political views wasn’t approved by the U.S. Senate or even that the administration had to withdraw a nominee (a rarity, but it has happened). It’s the cause of Ryan Bounds’ failure: A key Republican couldn’t stomach his racist writings of a quarter-century ago.

In case anyone has failed to notice, displays of bigotry and racism within the current administration aren’t exactly getting a sharp reprimand from Congress, at least not from the party in control of it. From President Donald Trump’s remarks about Mexican rapists and “s---hole” countries to his embrace of the alt-right, his dog-whistle speeches about border security, the cruel treatment of immigrant children or Mr. Trump’s pronouncement of “good people” among the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, this president’s attitudes toward individuals of color are well established.

Just recently, Homeland Secretary Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen echoed her boss’ views on the moral equivalency of the white supremacists who marched in Virginia last year and those who protested them (including, presumably, the counter-protester who was killed by a self-professed neo-Nazi). “It’s not like one side is right and one side is wrong,” she said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. She was no doubt attempting to make a point about the use of violence, but given the administration’s failure to condemn white supremacy, it’s worrisome that a distinction between Nazis and those who oppose fascism is so elusive to a cabinet member.

Mr. Bounds, 45, an assistant U.S. district attorney in Oregon and darling of The Federalist Society, was nominated last fall to fill Oregon’s seat on the famously liberal-leaning appeals court. Both of Oregon’s senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, opposed him. Last month, however, he was approved by a one-vote majority in the Senate Judiciary Committee and appeared headed toward confirmation. And then something happened. Two Republican senators, first Tim Scott of South Carolina and then Marco Rubio of Florida, announced they could not support the nominee. Their reasoning? They just weren’t able to accept the bile Mr. Bounds spewed while in college.

His writings included some pretty heavy handed ridicule of Stanford University campus organizations that promote diversity and inclusion as well as those that identify by race or ethnic group — examples of such entities might include an Asian engineering club or a black law student association, organizations that only seem to threaten the most delicately snowflake-sensitive of white ultra-conservatives. He wrote that since whites didn’t need an “Aryan Student Union,” then ethnic organizations should be abolished by Stanford as these groups foster “strident racial factions in the student body,” and he equated them to Nazi book burning. On another occasion, he wrote that schools should not feel pressured to expel rapists.

During his hearings in the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Bounds tried to walk back those inflammatory writings, but his apology did not attract a single Democratic vote. The loss of Senator Scott, who is African American, was the telling one, however, particularly with Sen. John McCain too sick to vote. Might this prove a turning point in whether Republicans will rubber stamp nominees or truly pay attention to their records, particularly when it comes to discriminatory writings, speeches or behaviors? It took nine months of review for the Senate to say no to Mr. Bounds. Under the circumstances, how can the chamber possibly pronounce judgment on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his far lengthier paper trail before November?

At the very least, Americans might be comforted in the thought that there’s now at least a “Senator Scott Test” that would imply that Trump nominees with overtly racist pasts will be judged unfit for important appointments like an appeals court post. And who knows? Perhaps that test will be applied to more than just rhetoric, and Senator Scott (or others) will also recognize that Trump administration policies like its efforts to eliminate anti-poverty programs that disproportionately assist minorities or shut the doors to various forms of legal immigration are just as bigoted and harmful. The nation has taken too many steps backward in race relations since Barack Obama left office to accept any more.

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