WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday advanced a key judicial nominee of President Barack Obama, an appointment that would complete a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s second most powerful court.
Senators voted 55-38 to move forward with the nomination of Robert Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Wilkins is a federal judge in Washington, and the third of Obama’s nominees to the D.C. circuit to move forward in the past month.
A vote on Wilkins’ confirmation was scheduled for Monday, with approval all but assured. Once seated, he would tilt a court that until last month was evenly divided between nominees from Democratic and Republican presidents to a 7-4 majority for Democratic appointees.
Both Republicans and Democrats say that’s significant. The D.C. circuit’s power stems from its caseload: It handles appeals on White House actions and many federal regulations. The court also has been something of a farm team for the Supreme Court: Four of the high court’s justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, previously served on the D.C. circuit.
The lower court had been evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees before Democrats changed filibuster procedures in November, allowing most nominations to move forward on simple majority votes. Previously 60 votes in the 100-member Senate were required to overpower a nomination’s opponents.
Until rules changes, seating judges to the D.C. circuit had proven particularly problematic for Obama.
Republicans blocked his first nominee to the court, Caitlin Halligan, and she languished for nearly two years before withdrawing her nomination. Sri Srinivasan was confirmed to the court in May of last year, but Republicans promised to block any further nominees to the court. They said the court’s caseload was too light to justify filling vacancies.
Democrats said Republicans simply didn’t want to allow Obama’s nominees to an important court to move forward. In November, Democrats changed procedures allowing most nominations to proceed on a simple majority vote. The first nomination to clear the Senate after changes to the filibuster rules was Patricia Millett to the D.C. circuit. The Senate also approved Cornelia “Nina” Pillard to the court in December on a majority vote.
In November, under old procedures, Senate Republicans had blocked Wilkins’ nomination. Democrats criticized Republicans, noting that Wilkins had been confirmed for a district judgeship in 2010 by a voice vote.
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