White House Chooses Doug Jones to Guide Supreme Court Nominee
WASHINGTON — Doug Jones, a former Democratic senator from Alabama, will serve as a guide for President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee during the Senate confirmation process, two senior administration officials said on Tuesday.
Mr. Jones, who left the Senate in 2021 and was on a short list to serve as Mr. Biden’s attorney general, will be a so-called Senate sherpa for the nominee. The nickname is borrowed from mountaineers of Tibetan descent who live across the Himalayas and are known for their ability to navigate travelers across hazardous terrain.
For Mr. Biden’s nominee, the path ahead could indeed be treacherous: The president has promised to name a Black woman, a decision that has drawn complaints from Republicans and foreshadowed a contentious process. With his selection of Mr. Jones, Mr. Biden appears to be offering a pre-emptive olive branch. Mr. Jones was the first Democrat in decades to hold a Senate seat in deep-red Alabama, and he frequently co-sponsored bipartisan legislation during his three years in the Senate.
Mr. Jones has less experience in the Senate than others who have been chosen to guide Supreme Court nominees through the process, but allies in the Senate praised his track record on civil rights. As a U.S. attorney, Mr. Jones prosecuted two Klansmen, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, who were involved in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four girls, ages 11 to 14, were killed in the attack. His past work added fuel to a narrow victory over Roy Moore, a former judge accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls, in a 2017 race for a Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.
“This is an individual who is well thought of on both sides of the aisle,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said of Mr. Jones. “He is somebody who understands the moment.”
Asked why Mr. Jones would be a good fit for the job, Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, said, “Look at what he did with his life, look what he did on civil rights, look what he did as U.S. attorney, look what he did in the Senate. So those are all good reasons.”
Mr. Jones did not respond to an email seeking comment his appointment.
Once Mr. Biden selects a nominee, Mr. Jones will introduce her to senators and prepare her for hearings. Senate Democrats have promised a quick confirmation process.
“The Constitution says ‘advise and consent, advice and consent,’ and I’m serious when I say I want the advice of the Senate as well as the consent,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Tuesday as he prepared to meet with Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the panel. Later in the day, Mr. Biden spoke with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, who stressed the importance of the president choosing a nominee who believes in “judicial independence,” Mr. McConnell’s spokesman said.
Possible Supreme Court nominees include women who have already weathered the Senate confirmation process, including Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who successfully did so last year when Mr. Biden elevated her from the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Others seen as contenders include Justice Leondra R. Kruger of the California Supreme Court and J. Michelle Childs, whom Mr. Biden said he would nominate for the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia Circuit, a frequent staging ground for potential Supreme Court justices.
Because meet-and-greets in Washington have the potential for combustion, past guides have told nominees to more or less adopt a speak-when-spoken-to role. Tom C. Korologos, a former Republican lobbyist and ambassador, has been involved in over 300 Senate confirmation processes, including those of Justices William H. Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, and the nominee Robert H. Bork. In an interview, Mr. Korologos read from a detailed sheaf of notes that he had gathered over the years — a veritable dos and don’ts list for potential nominees.
“The first thing that happens is you say to the nominee, ‘Your role indeed is that of a bridegroom at a wedding,’” he said. “‘Stand to the right, be on time and keep your mouth shut.’ You’ve got to take this process very seriously, spend every moment boning up on your hearing, and don’t assume you’ve got the job.”
He was not done.
“Don’t go anywhere near the court,” Mr. Korologos said. “Don’t meet with anybody. If you’re getting a haircut or having your nails done, don’t say a word to anybody, and reserve your comments for the hearing. Somebody will have heard it.”
Mr. Korologos, now 88, used to prep nominees by asking them to consider any skeletons in their closets. “What is there in your background that you have done that is going to come up in a hearing?” he said he would ask. “I’m not asking you to tell me, but get an answer to it because they’re going to find it and ask it.”
The final nomination team, Mr. Korologos said, will most likely engage in another strangely named process: so-called murder boards, where nominees and the nominee selection committee meet — in the past it has been at the White House or at a private home — and think of the nastiest possible questions that might come up in a hearing. Then they fling them at the nominee. Mr. Jones’s most recent sherpa predecessors included Jon Kyl, who served three terms as a Republican senator from Arizona and guided Brett M. Kavanaugh through one of the more bitter Senate confirmation processes in recent history.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was fast-tracked to her seat days before the 2020 election, did not have a Senate guide, a decision that aides of President Donald J. Trump said was because of coronavirus concerns.
Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who served as the chief White House strategist behind the nominations of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on Capitol Hill, said in an interview that the person in charge of shepherding nominees has historically had a dual responsibility: stroking the egos of senators, unruffling feathers and keeping the nominee calm.
Kelly Ayotte, a Republican senator from New Hampshire who was the sherpa for Justice Neil M. Gorsuch in 2017, said in a 2018 interview with NPR that she introduced him to roughly 80 senators and prepared a game plan for each one, including briefing him on each senator’s interests and what they might be likely to ask.
Ms. Ayotte recalled a nice moment when Justice Gorsuch and Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, bonded over horseback riding during their meeting.
“It did not turn into a yes vote,” Ms. Ayotte said. “But, you know, it was certainly a very personal moment.”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.