Senate confirms Obama judge following filibuster rule change

December 10, 2013

The Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Patricia Millett to the powerful federal appeals court in Washington, making her the first of President Obama’s nominees to be approved under the chamber’s new filibuster rules.

The 56-38 vote capped a drawn-out battle in which Senate Republicans accused Mr. Obama and Democrats of running roughshod over Senate tradition to stack the country’s second-most important court with like-minded judges.

“Two weeks ago the president and his Democrat allies defied two centuries of traditions, their own prior statements and, in the case of some Democrat leaders, their own public commitment about following the rules of the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said before the vote. “They did this for one reason: to advance an agenda that the American people do not want.”

Senate Democrats cleared the way for the vote last month when they triggered the “nuclear option” to change the chamber’s traditional filibuster rules — a move that made it harder for the minority party to block nomination by reducing the number of votes needed to cut off a filibuster from 60 to a simple majority.

The change paid off Tuesday, as Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska broke with their party to support the nomination.

“I’m pleased that in a bipartisan vote, the Senate has confirmed Patricia Millett to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, filling a vacancy that has been open since 2005,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “Ms. Millett is a leading appellate lawyer who has made 32 arguments before the Supreme Court, the second-most by a female advocate. She has served in the Department of Justice for both Democratic and Republican Presidents. I’m confident she will serve with distinction on the federal bench.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is considered the nation’s second-most important court, right behind the Supreme Court, because it weighs in on appeals from federal regulatory agencies, including the IRS and EPA. It also has served as a proving ground for Supreme Court justices.

Senate Republicans blocked the nomination of Robert L. Wilkins, a District Court judge in Washington, from filling one of the three vacancies on the D.C Circuit.

The move added to the partisan tensions on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated with Republicans’ ability to thwart Mr. Obama’s nominees by filibustering.

Republicans had blocked Ms. Millet’s nomination as well as Georgetown law professor Cornelia Pillard from filling another court vacancy.

Senate Democrats responded by voting 52-48 last month to change rules on judicial and executive nominations. The move, though, doesn’t apply to Supreme Court picks, which Democrats deemed important enough to be subject to a 60-vote threshold.

Both sides have used the filibuster to stop the other party’s judicial nominees.

Democrats — including then-Sen. Obama — pioneered the filibuster strategy with President George W. Bush’s picks, and Republicans have retaliated, saying they are holding Democrats to the same standard.

But Democrats say it has become worse than it was in the past, and many of them argue it’s time to change the chamber rules to allow judges to be confirmed on up-or-down votes, without the chance for a filibuster.

Conservative groups, meanwhile, are working to draw more attention to the confirmation votes and plan on holding the votes against red state Democrats, who they charge are rubber-stamping judges that are ideologically aligned with Mr. Obama