Sen. Susan Collins is among the last of the Republican moderates, acceptable to Maine voters in a way tea party candidates are not. Collins has husbanded her reputation, particularly as other GOP moderates have left the Senate by retirement or defeat, including Maine’s Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, Gordon Smith from Oregon and Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island.

Her campaign has been successful. While Kelly Ayotte, a GOP freshman from New Hampshire, the only other Republican from New England in either house of Congress, is in trouble over her recent vote against gun background checks,’; Collins voted for them – one of just four Republicans to do so. Collins gets coverage from Maine reporters ranging from respectful to reverential.

So it was curious that Collins would invest her credibility in Sen. Charles Grassley’s campaign to “reform” the District of Columbia Court of Appeals – the nation’s most important court after the Supreme Court itself. It oversees the federal government in all its complexity – all appeals of decisions by federal agencies, and new laws such as the Affordable Care Act.

Its decisions often form the basis for Supreme Court rulings, and the court is a key steppingstone. Four current Supreme Court justices – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas all served there first. In his first judicial appointment, Thomas had been on the Court of Appeals just 16 months when, at age 43, the elder George Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court.

Grassley wants to reduce the D.C. Circuit court’s number of justices from 11 to 8, supposedly because the court has an insufficient workload, and transfer the seats elsewhere. This is a ludicrous contention. Hearing an appeal of the Affordable Care Act is in no way comparable to routine review of a criminal conviction.

Like the Supreme Court, and unlike all other Courts of Appeals, the D.C. Circuit chooses what cases to hear. That’s why its caseload is smaller, even though it does more important legal work than half the other appeals courts combined.

What Grassley’s really up to is simple. Until recently, the D.C. court had two vacancies, and no new judges had been seated since 2006, when then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid began a highly injudicious campaign of delaying President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

Now, two Republican-appointed judges have retired and taken senior status, leaving four vacancies. The Senate confirmed one nominee from President Obama, leaving a four-four split between judges appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents. But because senior judges continue to participate in cases on a short-handed court, and serve on the three-judge panels that do most of the work, the Republican majority endures.

Obama has named three additional nominees. Grassley doesn’t want to advocate an outright filibuster by minority Republicans, so he provides the ruse of judicial “reform” to justify blocking the nominations.

Grassley, an old-time partisan warrior, is running true to form. But why is Susan Collins backing him?

In a recent op-ed, Collins repeated the misleading arguments about the D.C. court’s workload. She also cited Reid’s failure to advance the nomination of Peter Keisler in 2006 for similar reasons. But Reid was wrong not to allow a vote on Bush’s nominee – filibusters against judges can’t be justified, and are a big reason why the Senate filibuster rule is cited as evidence of a broken Congress.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Democrats blocking a single nomination in 2006 hardly justifies Republicans blocking three nominations in 2013.

Collins claims immunity from “playing politics” because she supported Obama’s nomination of Maine’s William Kayatta to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals – Kayatta was confirmed recently after Republican blocked him last year.

This is equally unconvincing. Hardly any home-state senator blocks an appeals court nominee of either party. That would be partisanship on a level of which Collins is plainly incapable.

But her support of Grassley’s plan is partisan. Everyone knows the real stakes – nominations to the Supreme Court, where Republican appointees have clung to a 5-4 margin for nearly 20 years.

As we have seen, the D.C. court would make a good “bench” for Obama to choose from. Is this any reason to leave the nation’s second most important court permanently short-staffed?

Susan Collins wants it both ways – to appear as a moderate even though she’s supporting a transparently partisan plan to block judges.

If she seeks, as she says, to “help ensure that qualified judicial nominees receive fair consideration in the Senate,” she could start by advocating up-or-down votes on Obama’s nominees.

Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at [email protected]

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