Louis Butler
Former state Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler

President Obama should get high marks from Wisconsinites for his decision to renominate former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler to serve as chief federal judge for the Western District of Wisconsin.

This is the third time that Obama has sent Butler’s name to the Senate, where Southern Republicans have used parliamentary maneuvers to block approval of a highly qualified African-American who would bring a wide range of legal and judicial experience, a demeanor that has been hailed by conservative and liberal jurists, and needed diversity to the bench.

No serious observer doubts that, were Obama to nominate a white male who was less qualified and less committed to a constitutionally based application of the rule of law, the Senate would move quickly to confirm the president’s pick. And if Obama was only interested in filling vacancies, he would compromise. But a compromise on the nomination of Butler would involve much more than the rejection of the most qualified prospect for this opening; it would have the president capitulate to those who would make the federal courts not defenders of the Constitution but hotbeds of the same sort of judicial activism that has infected the U.S. Supreme Court.

When highly qualified nominees are blocked because they do not meet the ideological litmus tests imposed by a handful of senators from the old Confederacy -- led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who has emerged as the chamber’s crudest critic of civil rights protections -- the constitutional principle that the Senate should work with presidents to provide advice and consent to judicial nominees is assaulted.

Of course, the Senate has a right -- make that a responsibility -- to reject unqualified and unethical nominees. But Butler is neither unqualified nor unethical, as senators of both parties have already acknowledged.

When Butler’s nomination has been allowed to be considered by the Senate, it has met with broad approval. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-7 to recommend his confirmation.

And rightly so. There was no overstatement on the part of Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., when he hailed Butler’s “intelligence, diligence, humility and integrity.”

“We are confident that the people of Madison and all of Wisconsin will be enormously proud of him and that he will serve them well,” Kohl, a classic moderate, told the Judiciary Committee. “I urge my colleagues to support his swift confirmation.”

Kohl is correct: Butler’s nomination merits broad and bipartisan support.

Unfortunately, backroom politicking by Southern senators -- in the form of secret holds and filibuster-style threats -- has twice blocked the full Senate from considering the nomination. This political gamesmanship is as shameful as it is unwarranted.

As we have noted before, Butler would bring remarkably broad experience to the federal courthouse.

A veteran public defender in Milwaukee, Butler was appointed and then elected as a municipal judge there. He was then elected to serve on the Circuit Court bench of the state’s most populous county.

Discover Madison news, via the Cap Times

Sign up for the Cap Times Daily Features email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

His August 2004 appointment by Gov. Jim Doyle to serve as the first African-American justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court was historic. Butler quickly distinguished himself as not only an able jurist but the most collegial member of the court. Even justices who disagreed with him on particular issues backed him for a full term on the court.

Unfortunately, Butler was defeated after special-interest groups and their wealthy allies poured millions of dollars into a sleazy attack campaign that played on racial stereotypes and was condemned by honest players on the right and the left -- as well as most of the state’s newspapers.

There was never much doubt that Butler would return to the judiciary. The veteran adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School and the current justice-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin Law School has skills so widely regarded that he has for many years been a faculty member of the National Judicial College, where he has provided education for judges from across the nation and around the world.

As a former state Supreme Court justice, Butler could clean up as a lawyer in private practice. But he is committed to public service and the judiciary.

Wisconsin is lucky for that, as is the nation.

President Obama deserves credit for recognizing that Butler is the right choice, and for sticking with that choice despite the political challenges. Kohl and fellow members of the Senate Judiciary Committee should renew their support of Butler. Republican senators who have casually supported moves to block Butler -- including Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson -- need to recognize what is at stake and reject the pressure from Southern senators who seek to play politics. They can and should fill this vacancy with an able and honorable jurist: Louis Butler.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.