The path from the legislative to the executive branch is as well-worn as usual, with five senators and a former senator now hoping to succeed another onetime senator as president and 15 former members joining the Cabinets of the Obama and George Bush administrations.
The route between the legislative and judicial branches, by contrast, is as weeded-over as it’s ever been. No one has gone from Congress to the federal bench in 30 years, and the last Supreme Court justice with any congressional experience retired in 1971.
The natures of those political trajectories might not remain as diametrically different for all that much longer. The Benghazi Committee’s moment is over, as is the shakeup in the House Republican hierarchy, which doesn’t leave much near-term professional growing room for Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. In any case, he manifested an approach-avoidance view of his role as the high-profile conservative hero this fall, during both the peak of his chairmanship and his time getting recruited for majority leader.
Gowdy’s newfound reputation as a somewhat reticent warrior for the hard right on the Hill has many allies predicting a career switch even sooner rather than later. Look for him to trade in his House voting card for a federal judicial robe at the earliest opportunity.
It’s common knowledge within the GOP conference, and among party political operatives , that Gowdy would much rather be enforcing and interpreting the law than writing it, and that he way prefers life in Spartanburg to spending weeknights in his Longworth office. If a Republican wins the White House next year, Gowdy would be well-positioned to be granted his preferences.
He’ll be 52 in 2017, still young enough to have a significant run as a judge. And he has a tough-to-beat résumé — even without his additional standing as one of the right’s favorites from the tea party House takeover class of 2010: clerkships for a state Supreme Court justice and a federal judge out of law school, then six years as an assistant U.S. attorney followed by a decade as a district attorney, and intense stints on both the Judiciary and Ethics committees since coming to Congress.
To keep his options open, the congressman is likely to remain neutral in the GOP’s pivotal first-in-the-South presidential primary in South Carolina, on Feb. 20 (three months from Friday). He’s also positioned to cruise into a fourth term in his solidly Republican district if he wants to (he has until March to decide), even though only about 10 percent of House members raised less during the first nine months of this year than Gowdy’s $217,000 haul.
(In the interim, Gowdy’s special committee will be interviewing as many as 20 more witnesses by the end of the year, before beginning to draft its final report about the 2012 attack on the consulate in Libya’s second largest city. It appears last month’s daylong interrogation of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was the panel's last public act.)
Two of the South Carolinians on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will become eligible for the semiretirement of senior status during the next presidential term, freeing up their seats. One rung down the pecking order, a pair of seats on the federal trial court in Gowdy’s state have been vacant and without nominees for more than a year, a situation that could well last through the election.
(As a practical matter, any pick of President Barack Obama would need the blessing of the state’s senators, Republicans Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, to have a chance at confirmation, and presidents of one party rarely get to fill judgeships in the lame-duck year when the Senate is controlled by the other party.)
“I think he would tell you that the best job he’s ever had is being a prosecutor,” Scott said of his friend Gowdy for a profile last year in the conservative National Review. “I think I could change that if we were able to make him a federal judge. That would be the best job he’s ever had. And after he becomes a federal judge, I assume he’ll be a Supreme Court justice before he’s 65 or so.”
The last justice with any congressional experience was Hugo Black, a Democratic senator from Alabama for a decade before starting a 34-year stint on the Supreme Court.
The last federal judges who’d done time in Congress both won confirmation in 1985: President Ronald Reagan put James L. Buckley of New York on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals almost a decade after he lost his Senate seat, and he gave conservative Democratic Rep. Sam Hall a seat on the District Court in East Texas in hopes his House seat could get picked up by the GOP. (Republican Ed Bryant of Tennessee settled for the federal magistrate’s post he now holds, which doesn’t require Senate approval, after giving up his House seat in 2002 and running two losing senatorial campaigns.)
In contrast, the Supreme Court includes one former Hill staffer — Stephen G. Breyer was a Senate Judiciary Committee counsel for four years in the 1970s — and at least a dozen other onetime congressional aides have become federal judges in the past 15 years.
"For politicians, the life of a federal judge isn’t viewed as being as attractive as it used to be," says Russell Wheeler, an expert on the judiciary at the Brookings Institution. "The confirmation process is excruciating and caseloads are up. Members realize that it’s just lore these days that the bench is a form of easy living, and besides they can make much more money becoming lobbyists."
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