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POLITICS: PennAve

Powerful D.C. Circuit Court has Democratic majority bench for first time since Reagan

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Senate,Judicial Branch,Appeals Courts,PennAve,Sean Lengell,Law

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered the nation's second-most influential court behind the Supreme Court, now tilts Democratic, thanks to the Senate's new filibuster rules.

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed President Obama's nominee Patricia Ann Millett to the appeals court, a long-delayed move that brings the bench's judicial lineup to nine — with five judges appointed by Democratic presidents and four by Republicans.

Millett, who was confirmed 56-38, will be just the sixth woman to serve on the court in its 120-year history.

"Patricia Millett has risen through the ranks of government and private practice to earn a place among the best appellate practitioners in the country," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who ushered her nomination from the committee to the Senate floor.

And with the Senate expected in the coming days to confirm Obama's final two nominees to the 11-member bench, the court is poised to have a solid 7-4 Democratic majority.

The court has been evenly split with eight active judges since Sri Srinivasan was confirmed in May, ending the court's GOP dominance that has stood since 1986. But Senate Republicans, eager to keep the court from slipping to Democratic control, repeatedly filibustered Obama's nominees for the remaining three vacancies.

With Obama's nominees locked in limbo, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., last month invoked the "nuclear option" to change the body's rules so that the confirmation of judicial and other White House nominees — excluding Supreme Court nominees — would require only a simple majority vote in the 100-seat chamber rather than the 60 votes previously needed.

"After years of unprecedented obstruction of the president’s nominees, the Senate finally took steps last month to rein in the abuse of the filibuster — and already we're seeing the benefit of our fight to make the Senate work for all Americans," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

"Patricia Millett’s confirmation today isn't a radical move. What's radical is that the Senate is finally doing what our founders intended — exercising its advise and consent responsibilities."

The controversial move was rebuked by Republicans, who accused Reid of running roughshod over minority party rights.

"The administration’s motive here was clear from the beginning. They knew they couldn’t pass their liberal agenda through a divided Congress," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "They lost the debate, so they changed the rules of the game in the middle of the fourth quarter."

The effect of the new appointees on the D.C. appeals court's pending lineup may not be drastic immediately, as the court rarely meets as a group to issue opinions, relying instead on three-judge panels to render most decisions.

Still, judicial experts say the pending addition of Millett, as well as Georgetown University law professor Nina Pillard and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins — who are expected to be confirmed later this week — will play a key role in turning back the court's conservative bent of past years.

The court is considered second only to the Supreme Court in level of importance because it handles challenges to most federal rule making and oversees federal agencies based in Washington.

The appeals court historically is a training ground for future Supreme Court justices, as four of the high court’s nine members once served on the D.C. court.

Meanwhile, with the filibuster rules loosened, Reid has scheduled votes on 10 more White House nominations, including Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and Jeh Charles Johnson to head the Homeland Security Department.
 
Reid also has asked for unanimous consent to clear with a single vote about 66 mostly noncontroversial Obama nominees for ambassadorships, district court judgeships and under secretary posts in several departments. But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has objected, meaning Reid may be forced to hold votes on each separately. 
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Sean Lengell

Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner