Sen. Marco Rubio blocks confirmation of judge he recommended

Mary Barzee Flores
Mary Barzee Flores File photo

After his failed run for the Republican presidential nomination, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio returned to Washington with a pledge to “finish strong” and complete his work in Congress.

But the Florida lawmaker, who is leaving Congress in early January, has conspicuously left undone one legislative item: clearing the way for the Senate confirmation hearing of Miami lawyer Mary Barzee Flores. She is a former state judge who was nominated by President Barack Obama to a vacancy on South Florida’s federal bench more than a year ago.

This past week, his office made it abundantly clear for the first time that Rubio — who along with Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson had recommended her for the judgeship — is blocking her nomination for reasons critics say boil down to “extreme political partisanship.”

Rubio’s office told the Miami Herald that he recently issued so-called blue slips triggering confirmation hearings for three Obama-nominated federal judges in Central and North Florida with Republican backgrounds. But the senator refuses to do the same for Barzee Flores, calling her the “wrong person” for the South Florida federal judgeship, without providing specific reasons about her legal credentials.

“Senator Rubio recently returned the blue slip for three judges to fill other vacancies throughout Florida, but he will not return the blue slip on Ms. Barzee Flores,” Rubio’s office said in a statement, which was released to other news media after the Herald requested an update on Barzee Flores’ confirmation hearing.

“Florida has very busy federal courts and Senator Rubio would like to see judicial vacancies filled promptly with consensus picks who can be swiftly confirmed in a period of divided government,” the statement said.

“During the Obama administration, there has been an unfortunate trend toward the judiciary playing a more active role in policy-making, which is why Senator Rubio would rather see a judgeship remain vacant than to fill it with the wrong person for a lifetime.”

By comparison, Rubio’s office added that the senator supported the confirmation of three Obama nominees in other parts of Florida — Patricia Barksdale, William Jung and Philip Lammens — because they have all clerked for Republican-appointed appellate judges, including Jung for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist. That is a “good indicator of their understanding of the appropriate role of the courts,” a Rubio spokesperson said.

Barzee Flores’ supporters in the legal community — including Miami-Dade, state and national police organizations, as well as prominent former state and federal prosecutors on both sides of the political spectrum — say they are baffled by Rubio’s decision to block her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

They noted that his reasoning, based on his office’s statement, was contradictory, evasive and reflective of the political divisiveness in the GOP-controlled Senate, which votes on the president’s judicial appointments.

“It’s unfortunate that Mary has apparently fallen victim to the extreme political partisanship that is plaguing federal judicial nominations,” said former U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.

Jimenez, who had served on Bush’s legal team in Florida’s 2000 presidential election dispute with Democrat Al Gore, said Barzee Flores is “extremely qualified and would make a great judge.”

Last year, Jimenez joined four other former U.S. attorneys in Miami — Roberto Martinez, Thomas Scott, Guy Lewis and Jeffrey Sloman — in a letter supporting her confirmation to the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, and a ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy.

“We know how important it is to have smart, fair, hard-working judges on the federal bench,” they wrote in March 2015. “Mary fits the bill.”

Their letter noted that three former U.S. attorneys in Miami who serve on Florida’s Federal Judicial Nominating Commission — Alex Acosta, Kendall Coffey and Dexter Lehtinen — recommended her to President Obama.

Barzee Flores, who worked her way through school as an undergraduate and law student at the University of Miami, worked for 14 years as an assistant federal public defender, another eight years as state circuit court judge and for the past five years as a civil litigator with a top Miami law firm, Stearns Weaver. Barzee Flores, 53, is also registered as a Democrat in Florida, records show.

Rubio’s critics, including some in the Republican Party, say his decision to block her confirmation is indefensible in light of her credentials and the fact that the position on South Florida’s federal bench has been vacant for two years.

“If Mary Barzee Flores was the ‘wrong person’ involved in ‘judicial policy making,’ why did [Rubio] affirm the selection of his nominating commission and submit her name to the president?” said Miami lawyer Tom Spencer, a Republican who backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during the presidential primary season.

“Clearly, some huge pressure was put on Rubio to put the knife into Judge Flores, and Rubio will not reveal the real reason for this hypocrisy,” Spencer said. “This is precisely why so many Florida Republicans are fed up with Rubio and the corrosive nature of his big money politics.”

Rubio’s position on the Barzee Flores nomination is not the first time that the senator has recommended a federal judicial candidate to the president and then backpedaled.

In September 2013, Rubio withdrew his support for Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge William Thomas, after recommending him the previous year for a seat on the same federal court as Barzee Flores. Thomas would have made history, if confirmed, as the first openly gay black man to serve as a federal judge. But, after Rubio’s reversal on the nominee, Obama decided against resubmitting his name to the Senate in 2014.

Glenn Sugameli, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has methodically followed federal judicial nominations over the past two decades, said Rubio’s double flip-flops for a U.S. senator were unprecedented. “I cannot recall any senator who blocked hearings on two Bush or Obama judicial nominees who were recommended by his Federal Judicial Nominating Commission or its equivalent,” said Sugameli, an attorney with Judging the Environment.

Sugameli said that, by contrast, “Rubio’s fellow Republican senators from Mississippi to Wyoming have worked with the White House to fill all judgeships in their states.”