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Dick Durbin, a low-key Senate veteran, to preside over Supreme Court hearings

Sen. Dick Durbin, chair of the Judiciary Committee, will preside over next week's confirmation hearings at the U.S. Supreme Court.
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Sen. Dick Durbin, chair of the Judiciary Committee, will preside over next week's confirmation hearings at the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Senate confirmation hearings open on the Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson next week, there will be a new face in the center chair.

Presiding over the hearing will be Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. Though he has served in the House and the Senate for a total of 39 years, his influence has largely been behind the scenes. Until now.

He has been No. 2 in the Senate Democratic leadership since 2007, a job that involves knowing senators well enough to be able to count and corral votes, and knowing how to broker a deal.

Durbin was raised in the working-class city of East St. Louis, Ill. On the Black side of town, people had come north in the Great Migration to work in factories. On the white side of town, the population was largely Catholic immigrants, like his mother, who came to the U.S. from Lithuania at age 2. Both his parents had only an eighth-grade education and both worked for the railroad, his mother in the office and his father as a night watchman, who worked his way up to a chief clerk's position.

"My church was kind of the center of my life. It was not only my school but it's where I went to play sports and, you know, dances and everything else," Durbin remembers. "I kind of focused on the Catholic side of life in East St. Louis."

That came to a grinding halt when his father died. "He was in the hospital for 100 days before he passed away. And there I was, a 14-year-old kid standing by his bed, seeing this man gasping for air at age 53, two packs of Camels a day."

His father's death led to what, decades later, Durbin calls his proudest accomplishment: his leadership in the fight against tobacco. In 1987, as a junior member of the House, he introduced a bill to ban smoking on airplane trips. Although the entire Democratic and Republican leadership was against the measure, amazingly it passed, on a bipartisan roll call vote.

"Why?" Durbin asks rhetorically. "Because the House of Representatives was the biggest frequent-flyer club in America." But in fact it was more than that, he says. "It was a tipping point I didn't see coming." A tipping point in public opinion. The bill passed the Senate and was signed into law after the key Senate committee chairman, who was up for election that cycle, polled the question and found that banning smoking on planes and in other public places was very popular.

Working with Republicans

So, how did a boy from East St. Louis, with no financial means, get to college, law school and the U.S. House of Representatives? To start with, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., was lot cheaper in those days.

"I could work all summer in the slaughterhouse in East St. Louis, make $1,200 a summer," and with a part-time job during the school year, and a $1,000 loan each year, he made ends meet.

One of the part-time jobs Durbin took was working for Sen. Paul Douglas, a famous liberal lion of his times, whose photo sits on the wall in Durbin's Capitol office. "Douglas fought the battle for civil rights ... against all the Southern Democrats in the Senate. It went on and on for years," Durbin recalls, noting that his mentor was usually on the losing side, but "he never gave up."

Now Durbin holds the Senate seat that Douglas once did. Not only is he the assistant majority leader, he is the first whip to also be the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He persuaded the Democratic caucus to let him do these two full time jobs by giving up other significant committee assignments.

He is intent on trying to break the committee's gridlock where he can. Everything has to be a compromise to succeed because the committee, and the Senate, is evenly split.

Durbin is something of a master at getting along with the opposition whenever possible. He is friends with the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley, and is trying once again this year to win passage of the DREAM Act that he first proposed 20 years ago. It would allow undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents as children to win legal status. His ally in that, most of the time, has been Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

"That's the nature of the Senate," he observes. "There are a lot of titanic egos on a very small boat, and the fellow you push overboard today may be the one that's going to save your life tomorrow."

There are, of course, some Republicans on the committee whom he sees as implacable. For Democrats, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas are particularly problematic. Cotton in particular makes a practice of holding up U.S. attorney, U.S. Marshal and other law enforcement nominees, not because he objects to them in particular, but because of an unrelated policy grievance with the Justice Department.

Now Durbin is about to preside over confirmation hearings for the first African American woman nominated for a seat on the U.S Supreme Court, and he is proud of this moment, "I hope we get it done, fingers crossed. If she can make it, it's historic."

The fate of the filibuster

But he is reflective enough — and candid enough — to look back and see that partisanship can lead to misjudgments.

He seems to be of two minds about the Democrats' decision in 2013 to abolish the filibuster after Republican leader Mitch McConnell blocked all three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

"McConnell just decided that he would do everything in his power to stop us from filling vacancies," he recalls. "And that's when [then-Majority Leader] Harry Reid said, 'I can't let him do that. That's an important court and we've got to have a mechanism to appoint someone.' "

At the time, Reid explicitly preserved the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, but just over three years later, when Donald Trump was elected, McConnell abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, allowing for the quick confirmation of three conservative Supreme Court Justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Does Durbin regret taking the first step to blowing up the filibuster? The Democrats think McConnell would have abolished it for Supreme Court nominees anyway. But the lack of the filibuster "has changed the Supreme Court a lot," Durbin says, and not for the better. "When you needed 60 votes to make it on the Supreme Court, you had to have a nominee that could pick up some votes of the minority party, whatever it might be," he observes, "and that, I think, moves you toward a more centrist person. And we no longer have that element in the equation."

As to his own votes on Supreme Court nominations, does he have any regrets? Durbin was one of 22 Democratic votes against John Roberts' nomination to be chief justice.

"I've thought about that more than anyone," Durbin admits. "I would say if it came to me again, I would reconsider. I respect him for so many things ... although a majority of his opinions I definitely would disagree with."

If that remark seems measured, don't look for more like it next week when Judge Jackson's nomination hearings begin.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.

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