The Senate on Thursday confirmed U.S. District Judge David Hamilton for the Chicago-based federal appeals court, approving a nominee targeted by conservatives as a liberal activist.
Hamilton was approved on a 59-39 vote and became the eighth of President Barack Obama's judicial nominees to win confirmation. He is the third confirmed for a U.S. appeals court, which is usually the last stop for federal court cases.
Republican senators — backed by their conservative allies outside Congress — had blocked a vote for five months until Democrats overcame a filibuster last Tuesday with a 70-29 vote.
The failure to stop the confirmation showed that Republicans lack the clout to block Obama's judicial nominees as the president remakes the federal judiciary following eight years of George W. Bush's mostly conservative choices for the bench.
Obama has been much slower than Bush in sending the Senate nominees to fill court vacancies. However, administration officials have said they are concentrating on the number of Senate confirmations. And they expect that number to soon equal the court confirmations in Bush's first year.
Republicans attacked Hamilton's rulings and his work in the distant past for two liberal organizations: the American Civil Liberties Union in Indiana; and as a fundraiser over two months for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, the troubled group that is under fire from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Both liberal groups set off raw emotions among conservative Republicans, but 10 GOP senators sided with 60 Democrats to end the filibuster. Nine of those Republicans voted against Hamilton on Thursday, leaving his home-state Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar, as his sole GOP backer. A number of senators frown on delaying tactics against a president's picks for the bench, even if the senators oppose a particular nominee.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reminded Republicans they complained a few years ago about Democrats blocking some of Bush's court nominees.
"Ah, the shortness of memories," Leahy said.
He added that Hamilton has received the American Bar Association's highest rating.
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, criticized Hamilton's ruling against using prayers mentioning Jesus to open the Indiana legislature.
"This judge is confused about his approach to the law on an important legal question," Sessions argued.
He also said Hamilton blocked, for seven years, part of an Indiana law requiring women to make two trips to a clinic for counseling before they could get an abortion.
'Highest rating possible'
Leahy countered that Hamilton handled 8,000 cases as a federal judge and Republicans only had a problem with a tiny handful.
"C'mon, let's be fair," Leahy said. "Eight thousand cases. The highest rating possible. Endorsed by everybody who knows him. This is not an ideologue."
Hamilton's confirmation by itself will not have a large political effect. The 7th Circuit appellate court, which serves Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, still has seven judges nominated by Republican presidents — while Hamilton is the fourth chosen by a Democrat.
Last week, the Senate confirmed U.S. District Judge Andre Davis of Baltimore for the appeals court based in Richmond, Va., giving Democratic nominees a 6-5 edge on the 4th Circuit, which once was a conservative legal bastion.
Other appellate courts are close to political turnaround.
- The New York-based 2nd Circuit, with 13 seats, currently has five Republican-nominated judges, four Democratic-nominated judges and four vacancies. One nominee for a vacancy is pending.
- The 3rd Circuit, centered in Philadelphia, has 14 seats and is evenly divided politically, six and six. Obama nominees in the pipeline would fill the two open seats.
- The Boston-based 1st Circuit has six seats, with three Republican and two Democratic-nominated judges. Obama has made a nomination for the vacancy.
Obama also could have a second Supreme Court nominee if Justice John Paul Stevens, 89, decides to retire after the current term.