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What is a Senatorial Courtesy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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In the United States Senate, senatorial courtesy is a practice where senators will not confirm nominees to official positions without the approval of the senators from the home state of the nominee. This practice is not official or codified, but it is generally accepted in Senate practice and has been since 1789. It can become the dealbreaker in a nomination; all it takes is one senator from the nominee's home state opposed to the nomination to ensure that it will not go through.

By extension, when the president of the United States is in a position to make an official appointment, it is traditional to consult senators from a proposed nominee's home state, as long as the senators belong to the same party as the president. The president confirms that the senators approve of the nominee before moving forward and announcing a name to avoid a situation in which a senator invokes senatorial courtesy and sinks the nomination. This also prevents awkward social and political situations where nominees are publicly rejected as a result of senatorial courtesy.

Senators may oppose a nomination because a nominee is "personally obnoxious" or for other reasons. Members of the Senate extend courtesy to each other on the understanding that, if a nominee from their own home state comes up, other senators will provide the same courtesy. While the concept of senatorial courtesy is not a hard and fast rule, it establishes a system that allows senators to oppose nominations in the confidence that if they strongly dislike a nominee in the future, other senators will support them.

Making political appointments is a delicate business, especially for positions such as seats on the Supreme Court, because they are held for life unless grave misconduct occurs. These positions are significant plums for the president, and care is taken to hand them to the most suitable person. The confirmation process provides the Senate with an opportunity to weigh in on proposed nominations and to oppose nominees the Senate feels are not appropriate.

Some people have criticized senatorial courtesy, arguing that it allows senators to wield tremendous power. A nominee may be controversial, but very fit for the position, and can be denied as a result of senatorial courtesy. This has the tendency to consolidate power and can result in attempts to nominate people who will not attract ire while passing over people who might be better fits for a position.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon998059 — On Apr 05, 2017

So the democratic senator from Colorado has the power to block the Gorsuch nomination?

By rugbygirl — On Sep 02, 2011

@SailorJerry - I think this goes all the way back to the idea of the Senate as the American version of the House of Lords versus the House of Representatives as the House of Commons. The founders envisioned a House of Representatives full of riffraff (not sure I disagree with them there) and a Senate full of "gentlemen." Remember that in the old days, senators were actually elected by state legislatures rather than directly by the people.

So senators are assumed to be upstanding sorts who would not derail a nomination for personal reasons like that.

And even if that reasoning is no longer valid, senators do still have reputations to uphold. If they hold up a nomination that a lot of other people are for, it will hurt them politically.

And to answer your first question (working backward here!) I think the logic is that a nominee is best known by his home state, and if they don't want him, no one will want him!

By SailorJerry — On Sep 02, 2011

What's the logic behind senatorial courtesy? It really does seem to give one person way too much power. Presumably, the president and his staff put a lot of work and energy into selecting and "vetting" their nominee - it seems like that person should come before the entire Senate.

I mean, an important nomination could be derailed because a nominee used to date a senator's wife in college or something!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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