Filibuster Rule’s End Should Help Obama Reshape a Key Court

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/MCT) -

On Monday, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on the confirmation of Patricia Millett, an experienced Supreme Court advocate, as a judge on the nation’s second-most-powerful court, tipping its balance of power to Democrats for the first time in nearly three decades.

The next day, in a reminder of the importance of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal of a decision by two of the lower court’s Republican appointees that swept away one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s key air quality rules.

The impending confirmation of Millett and two additional Obama nominees to the D.C. Circuit, expected by Dec 25, will give Democrats a 7-4 majority among full-time judges on a court that hears many of the most important cases on the powers of the federal government, ranging from labor law to banking regulation.

The court has been evenly split since Sri Srinivasan was confirmed in May, ending a Republican majority on the court.

Senate Democrats last month voted to abolish the filibuster for most federal judgeships, obliterating a long-standing Senate rule that Democrats also had used during Republican presidencies to keep people they considered extreme off the lower courts. Many liberals are now hoping that President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate will take the opportunity to fill numerous judicial vacancies nationwide without having to worry about Republican filibusters.

An unfavorable comment from a nominee’s senator, or no opinion at all, has traditionally been enough to prevent a hearing and kill a nomination. And with at least one Republican senator in 31 states, some instances of withholding blue slips have emerged since the filibuster rule was changed. Republican senators in Arizona are even trying to block approval of judges they previously recommended.

“The reforms were wonderful, but no one thinks they ended anything,” said Nan Aron of the liberal lobbying group Alliance for Justice. “The fight goes on because the stakes are so huge.”

Even the White House acknowledged that, despite all the hoopla about Obama’s potential ability to remake the federal judiciary, Republicans’ hold over the confirmation process has only been loosened, not broken.