Court nominee survives Senate test
Democrats block GOP filibuster for controversial pick
WASHINGTON - Democrats crushed a Senate filibuster yesterday against a controversial appeals court nominee, demonstrating to Republicans they can’t stop President Obama from turning the federal judiciary to the left.
The 70-to-29 vote limited debate over the qualifications of US District Judge David Hamilton of Indiana, and assured his elevation to the Chicago-based appeals court. Sixty votes were needed to end the filibuster, but confirmation requires only a simple majority of the 100-member Senate.
The vote emphatically warned Republicans that with only 40 senators, they are too outnumbered to prevent Obama from making major inroads into a judiciary that was populated over eight years with conservative judges chosen by President George W. Bush.
Republicans have objected to holding a vote on Hamilton’s confirmation since June, when the Judiciary Committee reported his nomination favorably to the full Senate. Conservative Republican senators and their judicial-watching outside groups then launched a political assault on Hamilton, criticizing his rulings against Christian prayers in the Indiana legislature and against a menorah in the Indiana Municipal Building’s holiday display.
Conservatives were also furious that Hamilton struck down part of an Indiana law requiring women to make two trips to a clinic before they could get an abortion. He said the requirement placed an undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to choose to end a pregnancy.
Beyond the political message, the filibuster effectively ended a bipartisan accord reached in 2005, when 14 senators signed onto a deal that effectively stopped Democratic filibusters of Bush’s judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances.
Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who led the opposition to Hamilton, argued that Hamilton’s record met his definition of extraordinary circumstances. He not only attacked Hamilton’s judicial record, but criticized his work in the distant past for two groups vilified by conservatives: vice president for litigation and board member of the American Civil Liberties Union in Indiana; and a fund raiser for two months for the embattled community advocacy group ACORN.
But Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Republican opposition was “more of the partisan, narrow, ideological tactics that Senate Republicans have been engaging in for decades as they try to pack the courts with ultraconservative judges.’’
Hamilton’s confirmation by itself will not have a large political effect. The Seventh Circuit appellate court, which serves, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, has seven judges nominated by Republican presidents, while Hamilton would be the fourth chosen by a Democrat. Other appellate courts are close to a turnaround. Last week, the Senate confirmed US District Judge Andre Davis of Baltimore for the appeals court based in Richmond, giving Democratic nominees a 6-to-5 edge on the Fourth Circuit that once was a conservative legal bastion.
The New York-based Second Circuit, with 13 seats, currently has five Republican-nominated judges, four Democrats, and four vacancies. One nominee for a vacancy is pending in the circuit, which also includes Connecticut and Vermont. And the Boston-based First Circuit has six seats, with three Republican and two Democratic-nominated judges. Obama has made a nomination for the vacancy.