Judicial nominees confirmed at a snail's pace

  • Article by: DAVID G. SAVAGE , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: November 15, 2009 - 9:26 PM

Only six Obama nominees to lower courts have been approved. Liberal activists blame Republicans for blocking Senate votes.

WASHINGTON - Despite a solid Democratic majority in the Senate, President Obama is on pace to set a record for the fewest judges confirmed during a president's first year in the White House.

So far, only six of Obama's nominees to the lower federal courts have won approval. By comparison, President George W. Bush had 28 judges confirmed in his first year in office, even though Democrats held a narrow majority for much of the year. President Bill Clinton put 27 new judges on the bench in his first year.

The slow pace of approving judges has received little attention while Democrats and Republicans have fought over health care, the budget and the economic stimulus bill.

But liberal activists have voiced growing irritation that Republicans are using their minority power to block Senate votes on Obama's nominees. They note that during the Bush administration, Republicans insisted the president's nominees deserved an up-or-down vote.

"This has become more bitter and more partisan than the Clinton years. It is obstructionism across the board," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, an association of environmental, civil rights and consumer advocacy groups.

The dispute is due to come to a head Tuesday, when the Senate votes on whether to cut off debate on Judge David Hamilton of Indiana, Obama's first court nominee.

In mid-March, the White House trumpeted Hamilton's nomination to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago and cited the choice as an example of "setting a new tone" and putting "the confirmation wars behind us."

A veteran judge with a moderate reputation, Hamilton is the son and grandson of Methodist ministers in southern Indiana. The state's well-respected Republican Sen. Richard Lugar said he "enthusiastically supported" the nomination.

But Hamilton ran into criticism from conservative activists in Washington. They noted he had worked for the American Civil Liberties Union before becoming a judge in 1994.

And they pointed to two of his judicial decisions as evidence he was a liberal activist. In one, Hamilton blocked the Indiana legislature from opening sessions with prayers. In a second, he blocked a state law from taking effect that set a mandatory waiting period for women seeking abortions.

Some Republicans said that they were also not obliged to readily support Obama's nominees, since Democrats had blocked several well-qualified nominees chosen by Bush.

In June, Hamilton won approval on a party-line vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since then, Republicans have refused to permit a floor vote on his confirmation.

Under the Senate rules, court nominees need a majority, or 50 votes. But the minority can refuse to agree to a deadline for ending debate.

The only option for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was to invoke "cloture," which requires 60 votes. Such a motion also commits the Senate to as many as 30 hours of debate on the nomination.

Last week, Reid announced he would seek a cloture vote on Hamilton.

Nationwide, there are 98 vacancies on the federal bench. Obama has 19 nominees who are awaiting votes in the Senate.

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