The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to endorse the nomination of William Kayatta Jr., a trial lawyer from Cape Elizabeth, to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

The committee endorsed President Obama’s nomination of Kayatta with a voice vote. Two committee members, Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, opposed his nomination for the judgeship.

Kayatta still faces a final vote on the Senate floor. That vote has not yet been scheduled.

Such strong support from the committee is a good sign for Kayatta, said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. Tobias characterized Kayatta’s hearing before the 18-member committee last month as routine and without controversy.

“The only real question is how soon he could get a floor vote,” said Tobias, who has a specialty in judicial nominations. “That could be some time. They move very slowly on appellate nominees.”

The nation’s 12 circuit courts, just a step below the U.S. Supreme Court, are the final stop for most cases appealed from federal district courts, because few cases ever reach the Supreme Court. The 1st Circuit court, based in Boston, covers Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico.

Kayatta, a partner at the Pierce Atwood law firm in Portland, would replace Judge Kermit Lipez, who has held Maine’s seat on the court since 1998 and went to semi-retired status in December. Lipez has said that he will carry a full caseload until September.

With six full-time judges, the 1st Circuit is the smallest circuit court. The average is 13 to 15 judges, and the largest – the 9th Circuit – has 29, Tobias said.

“When you have one less active judge on a court of six, that makes a big difference. It’s much more important that he be confirmed than for a court of 16,” he said.

Kayatta, 58, declined to comment Thursday.

Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine urged the Senate to act promptly on Kayatta’s nomination. Both issued statements praising Kayatta’s qualifications after the committee vote.

In a statement on his opposition to Kayatta’s nomination, Sessions cited Kayatta’s role as lead evaluator for the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary during the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

Sessions said Kayatta saw fit to give Kagen the highest rating despite her lack of substantial courtroom and trial experience, as a lawyer or trial judge. Sessions said the rating was “not only unsupported by the record, but, in my opinion, the product of political bias.”

Sessions also criticized Kayatta as defending Kagen’s decision to restrict military recruiters at Harvard Law School while she was dean.

Lee’s decision not to vote wasn’t a statement on Kayatta per se, said Brian Phillips, a spokesman for the senator. He said it reflected Lee’s continued protest of Obama’s recess appointments in January of Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and three others to the National Labor Relations Board.

Kayatta would continue Maine’s tradition of sending scholarly judges to the court, said Melvyn Zarr, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law. The standard was set by the late Judge Frank Coffin, for whom Kayatta clerked, and was continued by Lipez, Zarr said.

“The hope is that Bill Kayatta will follow that tradition,” Zarr said. “I think he’s learned at the feet of the master.”

Peter Pitegoff, dean of the law school, noted Kayatta’s involvement in public affairs, efforts to promote access to justice, and his mentoring of younger lawyers and students. Kayatta is on the law school’s Board of Visitors.

“Bill Kayatta has a very thoughtful approach to the law,” Pitegoff said. “He has a keen sense of justice and he has the highest standard of ethical behavior. One of the things he will bring to the appellate bench is a real understanding of life.”

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

Twitter: AnnKimPPH