Interest groups contend Republicans 'abusing' Senate rules in blocking judicial nominees

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Nov 13, 2013

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- Special interest groups decried Senate Republicans for holding up the nomination of Cornelia "Nina" Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Tuesday.

For the second time in weeks, the Senate failed to invoke cloture on a nominee to the court, considered by some to be the second most important in the country after the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cloture is the only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter -- in this case, a judicial nomination -- and thereby overcome a filibuster.

Under the cloture rule, the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by a vote of three-fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes.

Tuesday evening, senators voted 56-41 on Pillard's nomination -- just shy of the 60 votes needed to end debate. Really, the vote was 57-40, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote to "no," allowing him to move to reconsider the vote.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, voted "present." Two senators, Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Mike Johanns, R-Neb., did not vote.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Arkansas and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine were the only Republicans who voted to allow Pillard's nomination to proceed to a yes-or-no vote.

For the complete roll call, click here.

"Nina Pillard is an outstanding nominee with stellar credentials. Senate Republicans know that. But once again they have shown their contempt for the American people," Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron said in a statement. "They have again abused Senate rules to prevent President Obama from carrying out his duty under the Constitution to fill judicial vacancies.

"With an extremist minority in the Senate bent on imposing its own political agenda through an abuse of Senate process, the majority must reform Senate rules if that's what it takes for qualified nominees to get a yes-or-no vote."

Democrats are threatening to rewrite Senate rules if the GOP continues to derail the President's judicial nominations.

"First, Republicans in Congress threw a temper tantrum about health care reform that shut down the government and threatened our economic stability. Now, they're threatening to keep one-third of the seats on a critical court vacant just because they don't like the President, who is charged with nominating judges," said Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way.

"This stunningly irresponsible approach to governing shortchanges the individuals and businesses seeking justice from our courts and makes a mockery of our judicial system.

"Nina Pillard is an extraordinarily qualified nominee who deserves a fair, yes-or-no vote from the Senate. Instead, her nomination is caught up in the GOP's latest attempt to nullify existing laws by obstructing their implementation. Pillard, and American voters, deserve better."

Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the Senate has "redefined the bottom" by blocking Pillard's nomination.

"Today's vote makes clear that the hyperpartisan fantasy of shutting down the government isn't dying anytime soon," she said in a statement late Tuesday.

"By refusing to vote on even the most capable and experienced nominees, the Senate is ensuring that the D.C. Circuit will continue to be understaffed and unbalanced indefinitely."

Republicans contend the D.C. Circuit doesn't need more than its current eight judges.

President Barack Obama's third nominee to the court, Robert Leon Wilkins, also is expected to be blocked.

Wilkins, who was nominated in June along with Pillard and Patricia Millett, has served as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia since 2010.

Senate Republicans blocked Millett's nomination last month.

Millett, who currently heads Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld LLP's Supreme Court practice and co-heads the firm's national appellate practice, was five votes shy of the 60 needed to invoke cloture.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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