Republicans blocked a vote on President Obama’s pick for a seat on the crucial federal appeals court in Washington, dealing the White House a setback as it continues to struggle to fill judicial vacancies across the nation.
The Senate GOP filibustered the nomination of Caitlin Halligan, a New York lawyer who had won praise from some conservatives.
Republicans said they were concerned about Halligan’s record on gun rights and terrorism detainee issues. All but one — Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski — voted to prevent her nomination from going to the floor for a final vote, where the judge could have been approved by a simple majority. The final tally was 54 to 45, six votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster.
It marked the second time this year that Republicans have filibustered a key Obama judicial nominee. They denied Californian Goodwin Liu a seat on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in May. (A few months later, Liu was appointed to the California Supreme Court by Gov. Jerry Brown.)
Obama chose Halligan, a former New York state solicitor general who serves as general counsel to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, considered one of the most important federal appellate courts in the nation because of its role in reviewing decisions made by government agencies.
A judgeship on the court is often viewed as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court, and nominations to the D.C. Circuit have for years prompted clashes between Senate Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, Halligan was picked to replace John G. Roberts Jr., who was elevated to the high court as its chief justice in 2005.
Senate Democrats and interest groups argued that in blocking Halligan, the GOP abandoned a standard that was agreed upon by both parties in 2005, when Republicans threatened to do away with the judicial filibuster entirely. Then, the so-called Gang of 14 — a bipartisan group of senators — vowed to push through any nominee except in “extraordinary circumstances.”
Senate Republicans are “blocking 20 other highly qualified judicial nominees,” President Obama said in a statement. “These are distinguished nominees who, historically, would be confirmed without delay.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in remarks on the Senate floor prior to the vote, said that Halligan was ill-suited for the court.
“Ms. Halligan’s record strongly suggests that she wouldn’t view a seat on the U.S. appeals court as an opportunity to adjudicate, even-handedly, disputes between parties based on the law, but instead as an opportunity to put her thumb on the scale in favor of whatever individual or group or cause she happens to believe in,” he said.
The Senate has confirmed 24 of Obama’s appeals court nominees and 97 district court nominees over the last three years, with 15 appellate court vacancies and 67 trail court slots yet to be filled.