Senators 'block' Trump's pick for U.S. attorney in western Mich.

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — President Donald Trump's choice of a former Republican Michigan House speaker for a U.S. attorney position could be in peril because of a longstanding practice that allows home-state senators to block nominations.

Trump announced his pick of former Speaker Tom Leonard for U.S. attorney for the Western District on Aug. 14, meaning Leonard would be the top federal prosecutor for more than half of Michigan's 83 counties if the U.S. Senate confirmed him.


The nomination came about nine months after Leonard, a Republican from DeWitt, narrowly lost, 49%-46%, to Democrat Dana Nessel in the 2018 race for Michigan attorney general.

Leonard said in a Sunday statement Michigan's senators — two Democrats, Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters — had declined to meet with him. He added that he was "disappointed" they had chosen to "block" his nomination.

"While I understand that the politics of Washington may force them to vote against my confirmation, I never anticipated they would personally prevent over three million citizens from West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula from having a voice to fight crime," Leonard said.

For decades, the U.S. Senate has used a "blue slip" process that essentially requires senators to sign off on certain nominations in their own states.

When Leonard's nomination was announced, Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she had "strong concerns" but would review his qualifications and background. On Friday, she confirmed in a statement that she's "unable to support" Leonard's nomination.

"After the White House nominated former speaker of the Michigan House Tom Leonard for U.S. Attorney of the Western District, I carefully reviewed his qualifications and record," Stabenow said. "Unfortunately, I am unable to support Mr. Leonard’s nomination given our deep policy differences."

The office of Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, didn't provide a response to questions about Leonard's nomination.

The Senate officially received Leonard's nomination on Sept. 9. On the same day, the Senate also received the nomination of David DeVillers to be Ohio's U.S. attorney for its Southern District. The Senate confirmed DeVillers on Oct. 28.

But 2019 ended without action on Leonard's nomination, and Trump would have to renominate Leonard in the new year.

The fact that Leonard didn't get a Senate confirmation vote by the end of 2019 wasn't surprising, said Victoria Bassetti, a former Democratic staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Bassetti said the length of time Michigan's Western District has gone without a Senate confirmed U.S. attorney is unusual and signaled a "breakdown in communications" between Michigan's senators and the White House.

"There’s a long tradition of opposing parties working this out, because it’s an important position. It’s a signal that something serious is happening," Bassetti added.

A home-state senator coming out in opposition to someone's nomination "has traditionally" been the end of that person’s nomination, she said.

The Western District has been without a Senate-confirmed U.S. attorney for nearly three years. Andrew Birge has served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan since the day Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017, when Democratic U.S. Attorney Pat Miles resigned.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said during an August visit to Detroit that Western Michigan not having a Senate-confirmed federal prosecutor for 2.5 years was "just nuts."

Leonard, who previously worked in the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office, served three terms in the Michigan House, including two years as House speaker in 2017 and 2018.

Leonard said he made multiple requests over a four-month period to meet with Peters and Stabenow about his nomination, but no meeting had taken place.

"This is not the Sen. Stabenow and Sen. Peters I grew to know as House speaker," Leonard said in a statement. "They are better than this. We are better than this. Our citizens deserve better. I would hope they would be willing to change course and at least give the citizens a voice by allowing a vote in the Senate to occur."

Leonard has received 19 letters of support for his nomination, including letters from two prominent Democrats — Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

This is a portion of a letter that Mark Hackel, Macomb County executive, wrote in support of former House Speaker Tom Leonard's nomination for U.S. attorney for Western Michigan.

Duggan credited Leonard for his work to overhaul auto insurance laws in Michigan, according to a copy of Duggan's letter.

"On paper, we could be viewed as opposites, but when it came to doing the right thing and putting the needs of citizens first, Mr. Leonard stood with me at the front of the line," Duggan wrote in his letter. "It is for these reasons I find Mr. Leonard uniquely qualified to serve our citizens as a United States Attorney."

Trump's nominee for U.S. attorney in Michigan's Eastern District, Matthew Schneider, was confirmed by the Senate on Jan. 2, 2019.

Bassetti, the former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, said it's rare for a nominated U.S. attorney not to get confirmed by the Senate because the White House usually consults with the home-state senators before making a selection.

But there was an extended standoff between Republican senators from Texas and former President Barack Obama's administration when the Democrat was in office, she said.

"Michigan is sort of the Texas of the Trump administration," Bassetti said.