The Daily Brew: Upcoming Senate votes on Biden nominees

Welcome to the Tuesday, Feb. 23, Brew. Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. Senate expected to confirm at least two Biden Cabinet nominees this week
  2. February SCOTUS update
  3. Georgia Supreme Court chief justice announces 2021 retirement

Senate expected to confirm at least two Biden Cabinet nominees this week

Both chambers of Congress are in session this week. Today, I wanted to share an update from the email on the status of Biden’s presidential Cabinet nominees.

Senate confirmation votes are expected this week for two of Biden’s Cabinet nominees: Tom Vilsack for secretary of agriculture on Feb. 23 and Linda Thomas-Greenfield for ambassador to the United Nations by Feb. 24. 

Vilsack previously served as the secretary of agriculture for eight years in the Obama administration. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2009.

Thomas-Greenfield is a veteran diplomat who served in the U.S. Foreign Service for three decades. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced her nomination by a vote of 18-4.

In addition to the confirmation votes, at least three hearings are being held this week. On Feb. 22, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first day of its confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland for attorney general. Today, Feb. 23, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is holding a hearing for Debra Haaland for secretary of the interior, and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions is holding a hearing for Xavier Becerra for secretary of health and human services.

So far, seven members of Biden’s Cabinet have been confirmed:

  • Tony Blinken, secretary of state
  • Janet Yellen, secretary of the Treasury
  • Lloyd Austin, secretary of defense
  • Pete Buttigieg, secretary of transportation
  • Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security
  • Denis McDonough, secretary of veterans affairs
  • Avril Haines, director of national intelligence

Ballotpedia’s Transition Tracker is a daily email digest covering Joe Biden’s (D) presidential transition team, potential cabinet appointees, and the different policy positions of those individuals who can impact the new administration. Subscribe to get regular updates on the transition.

The chart below compares the pace of Senate confirmations for the main Cabinet members—the 15 agency heads in the presidential line of succession—following the inaugurations of President Donald Trump (R) and Biden. It does not include Cabinet-rank officials that vary by administration.

Nearly five weeks after their respective inaugurations, nine of Trump’s secretaries had been confirmed compared to six for Biden. Click here to view a comparison of the confirmation timeline of Obama’s Cabinet compared to Biden.

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February SCOTUS update

Yesterday, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) issued an order list accepting its first five cases for the upcoming 2021-2022 term. The court also issued 20 orders in pending cases, including denying a request by former President Donald Trump (R) to block the district attorney of Manhattan from subpoenaing Trump’s tax returns and denying review of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that extended the receipt deadline for mailed ballots in the 2020 election.

SCOTUS also began its February argument sitting yesterday. The court will hear arguments in 11 cases for a total of six hours of oral argument between Feb. 22 and March 3:

  • Florida v. Georgia 
    • Note: Trump v. Sierra Club was removed from the argument calendar after the court granted the Biden administration’s request to do so, which cited policy changes put into effect following the presidential transition.
  • Barr v. Dai (Consolidated with Barr v. Alcaraz-Enriquez)
  • Lange v. California
  • United States v. Arthrex Inc. (Consolidated with Smith & Nephew Inc. v. Arthrex Inc. and Arthrex Inc. v. Smith & Nephew Inc.)
    • Note: Wolf v. Innovation Law Lab was removed from the argument calendar after the court granted the Biden administration’s request to do so, which cited policy changes put into effect following the presidential transition.
  • Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee (Consolidated with Arizona Republican Party v. Democratic National Committee)
  • Carr v. Saul (Consolidated with Davis v. Saul)

The court’s March sitting is scheduled to begin on March 22. 

The court has agreed to hear 63 cases during its 2020-2021 term. Of those, 12 were originally scheduled for the 2019-2020 term but were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The court has issued opinions in 15 cases this term. Four cases were decided without argument.

The court heard 74 cases during the 2019-2020 term and issued decisions in 63 of them. During the 2018-2019 term, the court heard 69 cases and issued decisions in 68 of them.

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Georgia Supreme Court chief justice announces 2021 retirement

On Feb. 12, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton announced he would retire from the bench on July 1, 2021.  Melton’s replacement will be Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R) third nominee to the nine-member supreme court.

Chief Justice Melton joined the Georgia Supreme Court in 2005. Governor Sonny Perdue (R) appointed him. At the time of his appointment, Melton was the first justice appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court by a Republican governor in 137 years.

Following Melton’s retirement, the Georgia Supreme Court will include seven members appointed by Republican governors, and one was elected in a nonpartisan election.

When an interim vacancy occurs in Georgia, the seat is filled using assisted appointment. The Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission provides a list from which the governor chooses a justice. The commission recommends at least five candidates to the governor unless fewer than five qualified applicants are found. There is no requirement that the governor appoint a candidate from the nominating commission’s list.

There are fifty-two supreme courts among the fifty states. Oklahoma and Texas both have two courts of last resort, one for civil appeals and one for criminal appeals. Each year, we track the vacancies that occur on these courts. 

So far this year, there have been eight supreme court vacancies in seven of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies have all been caused by retirements. In 2020, there were 23 supreme court vacancies in those states. That number was 22 in 2019.

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