Federal Courts and Nominations

GOP Senators Again Block Halligan Nomination to D.C. Circuit

By Todd Ruger


Republicans once again blocked the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Wednesday, calling into question whether she might ever get a confirmation vote.


Halligan’s nomination needed 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster and allow a confirmation vote. The Senate voted 51-41, reflecting Republican speeches calling her “an activist judge” and questioning her views on gun rights, abortion and the war on terror.


“It is time for the President and Senate Democrats to accept the fact that this nomination is not going to be confirmed by the Senate,” Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said on the Senate floor before the vote. “We need to move on.”


Republicans previously blocked Halligan’s nomination in December 2011. They have repeatedly used Senate rules to send her nomination back to the White House, even singling her out from other nominees to do so. Each time, the White House has renominated Halligan, who was first nominated in 2010.


President Barack Obama released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying he was “deeply disappointed” that Halligan continues to wait for a simple up-or-down vote, but added that he would not give up on her nomination.


“A majority of the Senate agrees that Ms. Halligan is exactly the kind of person who should serve on this court, and I urge Senate Republicans to allow the Senate to express its will and to confirm Ms. Halligan without further delay,” Obama said in the statement.


The block of Halligan set up a war of words between Republicans and Democrats about the use of the filibuster in judicial nominations. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who backed away from major changes to the filibuster rules at the beginning of this year, had called the Halligan nomination “a test of Republicans’ good will.”


Obama said that Wednesday’s vote “continues the Republican pattern of obstruction” that has taken its heaviest toll on the D.C. Circuit.


“In the past, filibusters of judicial nominations required ‘extraordinary circumstances,’ and a Republican Senator who was part of this agreement articulated that only an ethics or qualification issue – not ideology – would qualify,” Obama said. “My judicial nominees wait more than three times as long on the Senate floor to receive a vote than my predecessor’s nominees.”


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday that this type of filibuster is not unprecedented and Republicans are still seeking to cooperate on confirming judges this year.


“Many of our Democratic colleagues who are expressing shock and utter amazement that we would deny cloture on Ms. Halligan’s nomination a second time, felt absolutely no compunction about repeatedly denying cloture on Miguel Estrada’s nomination to the same court,” McConnell said. “They denied cloture on his nomination seven times, in fact, even though, unlike Ms. Halligan’s record, Mr. Estrada’s background did not evidence a penchant for judicial activism.”


“We have begun this Congress by making progress on filling judicial vacancies,” McConnell said. “I’m happy to resume working with the majority on doing so. But because of her record of activism, giving Ms. Halligan a lifetime appointment on the D.C. Circuit is a bridge too far.”


Washington’s progressive court-watching groups decried the block of what they call a highly qualified nominee for a 11-member court that has four vacancies. Alliance For Justice President Nan Aron said in a statement “urging Republican senators to rise above partisanship is like urging three-pack-a-day smokers to ‘just say no’ to tobacco.”


“The vote today also makes clear that the recent agreement to ‘reform’ Senate rules really was no agreement at all, but rather a blank check for continued obstruction,” Aron said. “We believe the Senate majority needs to reconsider the terms of this agreement, and revisit serious rules reform.”


The People For the American Way said it was a political strategy to keep Republican-appointed judges dominating the court.


“Let’s call the filibuster of Halligan what it is: a politically motivated attempt to keep President Obama’s nominee off the second highest court in the country,” PFAW Vice President Marge Baker. “The court continues to be dominated by far-right Republican-appointed judges who have pushed an extreme right-wing agenda on issues including environmental protection, workers’ rights and public health. This is not a coincidence.”


And the Constitutional Accountability Center said the Halligan vote was a breathtaking example of partisan dysfunction in Washington that harmed justice and took a toll on judges. “A minority in the Senate turned away a nominee who Americans are lucky to have willing to serve their country, which can only discourage other highly qualified candidates from stepping forward in the future,” CAC Vice President Judith Schaeffer said in the statement.

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