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Senatorial courtesy is an unwritten political custom (or constitutional convention) in the United States whereby the president consults the senior U.S. Senator of his political party of a given state before nominating any person to a federal vacancy within that Senator's state. It is strictly observed in connection with the appointments of federal district court judges, U.S. attorneys, and federal marshals. Except in rare cases, the courtesy is typically not extended by the president to a state's senators when the president and senators of said state are of different political parties.
This "courtesy" is less relied upon in the case of vacancies on the U.S. Courts of Appeals. The geographic jurisdiction of these appellate courts spans three or more states, enlarging the number of senators to be consulted and making consensus or unanimity more difficult. At times, the home state senatorial role is so strong that one senator or both senators acting together make the appointment, and the White House and the entire Senate go along with the home state senator(s).
Senatorial courtesy does not apply in the appointment of Supreme Court justices, though it did during the administration of Grover Cleveland, when political opposition of New York senator David B. Hill prevented Cleveland from gaining confirmation for a replacement to a seat traditionally held by a New Yorker. Cleveland eventually bypassed Hill by disregarding this courtesy and leveraging another Senate custom, through nominating a sitting senator from Louisiana, Edward Douglass White—the Senate tradition was one of approving without debate the appointment of any sitting Senator.
A secondary meaning of this term refers to the deference often shown to former U.S. senators who are nominated by the president. When a president nominates a former U.S. senator to an executive branch office, the Senate often is more supportive than they would normally be. This type of "courtesy" was dealt a serious blow in 1989, when the Senate failed to confirm former U.S. senator John Tower of Texas to be Secretary of Defense.
In the case of federal district court judgeships, the custom of senatorial courtesy is enforced within the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senators may summarily remove a person from further consideration simply by stating that they find the individual "personally obnoxious". The custom is easily applied by a single senator or both senators from the state where the district is located. This is because federal judicial districts do not straddle state lines, thereby limiting the senatorial involvement to only one or both senators from only the state wherein the district is located.
- Neubauer, David W.; Meinhold, Stephen S. (2007). Judicial Process: Law, Courts, and Politics in the United States (4th ed.). Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth. ISBN 0-495-00994-6.
- Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 94.
- See Henry J. Abraham, "Senatorial Courtesy," The Oxford Companion to the United States Supreme Court.