Federal Courts and Nominations

Senate Republican filibuster blocks Obama D.C. Circuit nominee Caitlin Halligan

By Felicia Sonmez

Senate Republicans on Tuesday filibustered the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, blocking a nominee tapped last year by President Obama to serve on one of the country’s most powerful courts.

Tuesday’s final roll call vote on cutting off debate was 54 to 45.. One Republican – Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — joined all 53 members of the Democratic caucus in voting to move ahead with Halligan’s nomination, leaving the former New York state solicitor general six votes short of the 60 votes necessary for ending debate.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has never voted to filibuster a judicial nomination, voted “present.”

Tuesday’s vote is notable in that it marks the second time that Senate Republicans have blocked an Obama judicial nominee. In May, Republicans filibustered Obama’s nomination of Goodwin Liu to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit following a protracted battle over what GOP senators cited as the University of California at Berkeley law professor’s liberal views.

Six years ago, a bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators negotiated an agreement aimed at preventing filibusters of judicial nominees except under what they termed “extraordinary circumstances.” On Tuesday, as in May’s vote on Liu, the four Republican members of that group who remain in the Senate – Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) – voted “no,” a sign that Republicans as well as Democrats have now come to view filibusters of judicial nominations as fair game.

The battle over Halligan was especially heated because the court to which Obama had appointed her, the D.C. circuit, has typically served as a stepping-stone to the Supreme Court. Of the nine sitting Supreme Court justices, four have previously served on the D.C. circuit.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued that Republican attempts to filibuster Halligan, who currently serves as general counsel for the New York County District Attorney’s Office, represented “part of the far right’s attempt to pull the D.C. Circuit further and further away from the mainstream.”

“If this body cannot invoke cloture on her nomination today, the Gang of 14 agreement, it would seem to me, has been violated,” Schumer said on the Senate floor, adding that the move would have “lasting consequences” beyond Tuesday’s vote.

Senate Republicans, who had objected to Halligan’s record on gun rights and detainee policy, noted that Schumer has backed judicial filibusters in the past, as have other Democrats.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in remarks on the Senate floor that Halligan’s representation of New York in a case against gun manufacturers and her membership on a New York City Bar Association panel that issued a report criticizing Bush administration detainee policy had given him concerns about Halligan’s “judicial philosophy and her approach to interpreting the Constitution.”

“Based on her record, I simply do not believe she will be able to put aside her long record of liberal advocacy and be a fair and impartial jurist,” Grassley said.

But the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal group that had backed Halligan’s nomination, said in a statement Tuesday that “any idea that the Halligan nomination was somehow an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ is a bad joke.”

“The only things extraordinary about Caitlin Halligan are her credentials and fitness for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,” the group said. “With today’s filibuster, the ‘Gang of 14’ deal on judicial nominations is officially dead and the partisan war over the courts has escalated to a dangerous new level, even while the vacancy rate on the federal judiciary has reached a crisis point.”

This story has been updated.

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