Top Tennessee Lawmaker's Nomination To Federal Bench In Doubt, After Groups Scour Record | Nashville Public Radio

Top Tennessee Lawmaker's Nomination To Federal Bench In Doubt, After Groups Scour Record

Jan 11, 2018

State Sen. Mark Norris's nomination to be a federal judge might be in trouble amid scrutiny over his legislative record.

The Memphis-area lawmaker is one of the top Republicans in the state legislature and was nominated last fall to take a vacant seat on the federal district court for West Tennessee, but the Senate has not held a vote on his nomination. Norris had been expected to be confirmed before the start of the legislative session this week, but Norris says he's been given no indication when — or if — a vote will take place.

"It's not my decision," he says. "It's in the hands of the U.S. Senate and nobody should presume. It's their timetable, not ours."

Norris says he intends to remain in the state legislature until Congress acts. He's not up for re-election until 2020. He also plans to continue serving as the state Senate's majority leader.

Norris has long been thought to be a top candidate for federal judge, after a long legal and legislative record that includes 18 years in the General Assembly. He's been the Senate's second-ranking Republican for more than a decade.

At a meeting of Senate Republicans this week, Norris acknowledged his confirmation is taking longer than expected. He said he's being "crucified for the sins of others." Later, he explained he meant opponents were pointing to legislation that was proposed by other senators — such as a Tennessee law that lets therapists turn away gay clients — in order to attack him.

But the NAACP and other advocacy groups also point to Norris's record in the legislature. They note that Norris has supported tougher voter identification laws, which they say suppress turnout among minority and low-income groups, and that he's opposed same-sex marriage. Norris says he now accepts gay marriage as settled law.

Norris has also pushed a lawsuit that seeks to give Tennessee officials a role in reviewing refugees. In a 2016 letter to Gov. Bill Haslam, Norris said they could be terrorists or carrying diseases, even though they'd already been vetted and received health screenings from federal authorities.

Critics say such statements should disqualify Norris from the bench.

Norris is not the first Tennessee lawmaker nominated by the Trump administration for a federal position to see his confirmation delayed. Last year, state Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, withdrew from consideration to be Secretary of the Army after top lawmakers, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, voiced alarm over some of his past statements about gays and Muslims.

A lower-profile state senator, Maryville Republican Doug Overbey, sailed through confirmation as a federal district attorney. The Senate unanimously approved his appointment in November.