A vacancy is opening on the federal bench in Maine, but the work to fill it will not begin until after the November election because of the holdup on judicial nominees in the Senate, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.
“The election-year politics have all but guaranteed there’s going to be no movement,” said Ed Gilman, a spokesman for the Maine Democrat.
U.S. District Judge George Singal plans to transition to senior status next year, a move that will create an opening for another judge. As the senior Democrat in Maine’s congressional delegation, Michaud is charged with recommending nominees to the Obama administration.
For the last two federal judicial openings in Maine, Michaud and fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree formed judicial screening panels to review candidates.
The nomination of U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen, a former assistant U.S. attorney, was confirmed by the Senate in October. But William Kayatta of Cape Elizabeth, a trial lawyer who has been tapped for Maine’s seat on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, is among the Circuit Court nominees whose confirmation votes remain blocked by Republicans. Last week, Senate Republicans invoked the so-called Thurmond Rule in order to block Circuit Court nominations within six months of a presidential election.
It’s realistic to believe there would be no action on another Maine nominee before the election, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond Law School professor and expert on federal judicial nominations.
“There’s such a logjam ahead of that nominee right now,” he said. “Even if the person were nominated tomorrow, it would still stall.”
Tobias said there are more than 20 nominees awaiting floor votes. There are about 77 federal judicial vacancies where no replacement has been found for a judge that has retired or taken senior status, he said.
Singal intends to move to senior status on July 31, when he will be eligible under the “Rule of 80.” The rule looks at the judge’s age and years of service. Singal will be 67 and have served for 13 years by then.
Singal said the change will allow the court to acquire another judge, and for him to spend more time with his grandchildren, who live in New York and Pennsylvania.
He plans to maintain a full caseload, saying he enjoys the job immensely. But the addition of another judge and the lightening of administrative duties, he said, will give him more flexibility.
“I thought it would give me the best of both worlds,” he said.
Senior judges may reduce their caseloads down to as little as 25 percent, but do not have to cut back. By statute, when a district judge moves from active to senior status, the change triggers a vacancy regardless of the size of the senior judge’s caseload.
Its not uncommon for senior judges in good health to continue to carry substantial caseloads and to decrease them as they get older, said David Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
Because federal judges are appointed for life, they maintain the same salary whether they are active, senior or retired, he said.
Nominated by then-President Bill Clinton, Singal received his commission on July 17, 2000. He served as chief judge of the District of Maine from 2002 through 2008. He has been a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Resources and its chairman.
Singal was an assistant district attorney in Penobscot County and in private practice in Bangor before he became a judge.
The current blockage of judicial nominations affecting Kayatta is taking place despite the support that the trial lawyer has from Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
The Obama administration did not nominate Kayatta until nine months after Judge Kermit Lipez announced his decision to retire, said Kevin Kelley, Collins’ spokesman. He said Collins thinks it’s unfortunate that Kayatta’s nomination is caught up in election-year politics, and that it would be prudent to wait until the election has taken place before pursuing the next nomination for Maine.
If Mitt Romney wins the election, Collins would be responsible for the recommendation process for the nominee. That responsibility would fall to her because she would be the senior member of the Congressional delegation who has the same party affiliation as the president.
Snowe has said she is deeply concerned that nominees like Kayatta, who receive bipartisan support and are highly qualified, have not been able to get an up-or-down vote.
Willy Ritch, a Pingree spokesman, said it’s frustrating that the nominations can’t go forward.
“These are important jobs. It’s important that they’re filled, and politics shouldn’t get in the way,” he said.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: