Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks during her watch party at the Westin Jackson Tuesday, November 6, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

A spokesperson for U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said is he “extremely disappointed” with Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s effort to block the nomination of Scott Colom of Columbus as a federal judge for the Northern District of Mississippi.

The question is whether that disappointment could result in Durbin ignoring Hyde-Smith’s objections and taking up the nomination of Colom, a state district attorney for an area of northeast Mississippi.

“Chair Durbin has continually reminded his colleagues that it is imperative they engage with the White House in good faith to advance district court nominees — just as he did when former President Trump was in the White House,” said Emily Hampsten, a spokesperson for Durbin, who also is the majority whip. “He is extremely disappointed in Sen. Hyde-Smith’s lack of communication and ultimate obstruction of a highly qualified nominee. In the coming days, he’ll be assessing and will respond more fully.”

Hyde-Smith threw a wrench in the Senate confirmation of President Joe Biden’s nomination of Colom when she refused to return the so-called “blue slip.” Under unwritten Senate rules, refusal of either home state senator to return a blue slip signaling approval of a presidential appointee has at times blocked nominees to the federal bench.

While Hyde-Smith refused to return the blue slip of Colom, Mississippi’s senior U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker did, signaling his approval.

For most of the 20th century, the refusal to return the blue slip has not been an absolute in blocking nominations. Various groups and politicians, including U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of the 2nd District of Mississippi, have urged Durbin to forgo the unwritten rule that refusal by a home state senator to return the blue slip blocks the nomination.

READ MORE: Democrats: Ignore ‘blue slip’ custom to get federal vacancies filled in Republican states like Mississippi

While Durbin has not said exactly how he will approach the Colom nomination, a spokesperson for the Senate Judiciary Committee noted that Democrats returned 130 blue slips during the tenure of Republican President Donald Trump. And Durbin himself returned eight blue slips during Trump’s presidency.

The Colom instance illustrates how partisan and polarizing the federal judicial appointment process — and congressional governing at large — has become. Hyde-Smith, a staunch conservative Republican, invoked several hot-button political issues in her statement about the Democratic district attorney’s record of service in Mississippi.

“I visited with the district attorney recently, and I recognize that he is smart and well liked in his district,” Hyde-Smith said in a statement Tuesday. “However, there are a number of concerns I have regarding his record. As someone with a strong interest in protecting the rights of girls and women, I am concerned about Scott Colom’s opposition to legislation to protect female athletes.”

Hyde-Smith seems to be referring to a letter Colom signed condemning the criminalization of gender-affirming care, rejecting the prosecution of the families of transgender individuals seeking treatment to help them transition. He and dozens of other prosecuting attorneys made the statement in the aftermath of an onslaught of legislation across the country attempting to block trans youth from receiving the care.

While the letter did condemn anti-trans legislation generally, the prosecutors’ statement did not discuss “legislation to protect female athletes,” which refers to attempts to prohibit trans women from competing in women’s sports. There is no public record of Colom taking a stance on trans women competing in women’s sports.

In her statement about refusing to support Colom’s nomination, Hyde-Smith also said: “The significant support his campaign received from George Soros also weighs heavily against his nomination in my view. I simply cannot support his nomination to serve on the federal bench in Mississippi for a lifetime.”

Soros, a New York billionaire who has advocated for various criminal justice reforms and for other progressive and governmental transparency causes, did provide funds in support of the Colom campaign through a political action committee in 2015 when he was first elected district attorney. But Colom did not receive support from Soros in 2019 when he ran for reelection.

Soros has become a pariah among national Republicans. Hyde-Smith’s statement about Colom came on the same day Trump appeared in New York state court on a 34-count indictment for falsifying business records in a scheme during his 2016 presidential campaign to conceal that he’d had an affair with an adult film star.

Following the charges, Trump and many of his supporters attributed the probe to Soros, who supported the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg leading the case.

Colom, when reached by Mississippi Today, declined to comment on Hyde-Smith’s refusal to support his nomination. Federal judges receive a lifetime appointment. Colom was nominated by Biden to replace Mike Mills, who is stepping down from full-time service on the judiciary.

Despite Hyde-Smith’s partisan objections to Colom’s appointment, Colom had received endorsement letters and support from numerous Mississippians who had worked with him in his role as chief prosecutor of the 16th Circuit Court District.

The mother and the sister of James “Fluffy” White, a Clay County man who was murdered in 2015, submitted a letter to the Judicial Committee praising Colom for his successful prosecution of the man accused of murdering their loved one.

“Prior to trial, Mr. Colom’s staff regularly communicated with us and kept us informed about the legal process and what to expect. We also personally observed Mr. Colom prosecute Roderick Johnson, the person arrested for shooting and killing Fluffy, and his knowledge of the law and legal procedure were impressive during the trial as was his passion for justice for Fluffy. As a result of his and his team’s hard work, Mr. Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

“Based on our observations and experience with Mr. Colom, we have no doubt he would be a well-informed, ethical, fair and independent judge,” the women wrote.

Rhea Ann Pace detailed how Colom successfully prosecuted the man who murdered her daughter and shot her 4-year-old grandson multiple times.

“After the trial, Scott created a college savings plan for my grandson…and for the last four years he has been putting money in that plan so that when he graduates high school he can go to college,” she wrote to the Judiciary Committee. “To me this goes well beyond the scope of a district attorney. This makes him a man who truly cares about the people in his district.”

READ MORE: Biden’s pick for US Attorney, in charge of welfare probe, gets approval from Mississippi senators

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.