No JD

03.25.14

Picking Crops And Picking Judges

Did Bruce Braley insult Iowa farmers when he pointed out that Chuck Grassley could be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee?

The Internet is burning up this afternoon with video leaked by the GOP oppo group American Rising showing Bruce Braley, the presumptive Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Iowa, deriding the possibility of incumbent Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, a non-lawyer, becoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2015 if Republicans take control of the Senate this year.

Speaking before what is described as a group of Texas trial lawyers at a fundraiser, Braley said:

“If you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice — someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years in a visible and public way on the Senate Judiciary. Or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary. Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary.”

While Republicans are up in arms about it, describing it as an insult to the Iowa farmers while queuing up the predictable storm of outrage and derp, it seems to be a far more anodyne statement. Simply that the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for vetting all federal judges as well as legislation that relates to the legal system as whole (which includes not just criminal and civil law but other hugely important areas like immigration and patent law as well) should be chaired by a lawyer. 

In fact, according to the Senate Historical Office, every previous chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee has been admitted to the bar as a lawyer. The one problem with Braley's remark is that it happened to reflect on a fellow Iowan who is a mainstay of Hawkeye State politics. The four-term Iowa congressman's statement would have gone unnoticed if it was about a senator from any other state. After all, the committee had been led by lawyers ever since 1816 when Dudley Chase, a Democratic-Republican from Vermont, became its first chair.

Regardless of whether Grassley, whose highest degree is a M.A. in political science from the University of Northern Iowa is qualified to be chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sharing that opinion was probably not advisable. It's not an insult to farmers (though could be construed as one to Grassley); it's just a gaffe. 

Disclosure: The author is a lawyer who is admitted to practice in the State of Maryland.