WASHINGTON — The Senate moved a step closer – yet again – to a “nuclear” showdown over the chamber’s arcane rules this past week when Republicans blocked two high-profile Obama administration nominees.
One of those two nominees now stuck in the political cross-hairs between Senate Democrats and Republicans is an attorney with strong ties to Maine.
Patricia Ann Millett – a nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – was born in Dexter, Maine, which was also her mother’s hometown.
Millett moved away at a young age but reportedly returned to the state frequently as a child to visit her grandparents. Millett’s family roots in Maine also date back generations, according to biographical information.
Millett and a federal housing nominee failed to receive the 60 votes needed to break a Senate filibuster.
The D.C. Circuit Court is often described as the second most important bench in the nation after the U.S. Supreme Court because it handles appeals involving federal agencies and the White House. And that’s why Millett and two other nominees for the same bench have run smack into Washington politics.
The court currently has eight active judges: four appointed by a Democratic president and four appointed by a Republican. Adding any more would tip the balance on a court that many Republicans insist has too light a caseload to merit additional judges.
Millett’s qualifications do not seem to be the issue. She has argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court – more than any other woman in history, at least as of April 2012 – and served as an assistant solicitor general in the administrations of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton.
“It is inconceivable in my mind that someone would be opposed to Patricia Millett for this seat,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said last week. “She is extraordinarily qualified.”
Millett’s nomination fell five votes short of the 60 needed to move forward. The Republican filibuster reignited talk among some Democrats and some progressive groups who want Senate rules “reforms” to overcome what they insist is Republican obstructionism.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins was one of two Republicans – the other being Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – to side with Democrats to end the filibuster. Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also voted to move forward with Millett’s nomination.
Collins actually agrees with her Republican colleagues that some of that court’s judicial seats should reallocated to other courts, arguing that “by nearly every measure the D.C. Circuit has the lightest caseload of any federal appellate court.” But Collins said she voted for Millett because she deemed her “superbly qualified to serve as a federal judge” and because a reallocation bill is unlikely to pass.
“During my personal meeting with her, I was more than satisfied that she would bring a restrained judicial philosophy to the court and has an ideal judicial temperament,” Collins said in a statement.
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond School of Law professor who closely tracks judicial nominations in Washington, credited Murkowski and Collins for bucking their party.
“I think the leadership pressure was probably enormous on her, but I think she did the right thing,” Tobias said.
Collins did, however, vote with her Republican colleagues to block President Obama’s nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Watt’s rejection by Senate Republicans was the other vote that triggered Democratic talk of the “nuclear option” – a dramatic reference to doing away with aspects of the filibuster.
Explaining her vote, Collins said she did not believe Watt was qualified to head an agency charged with overseeing Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Banks as well as guiding the two Freddies out of federal conservatorship.
Collins said such a job – which is a five-year appointment – required someone with more “technical expertise.”
“Throughout my years in the Senate, I have been inclined to defer to the president’s choice of nominees for positions in the executive. Consequently, I have often cast my vote for nominees whom I, myself, would not have chosen,” Collins said. “But the rationale for deference to the president declines where the position the nominee would fill has independent status or has responsibilities of a highly sensitive nature, as is the case here.”
King and Collins were the only two senators to successfully offer amendments to the “surveillance reform” bill endorsed last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The bill emerged as new revelations of international snooping by the National Security Agency caused more diplomatic headaches for the Obama administration.
King introduced an amendment that would essentially allow the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – the top-secret judicial panel that reviews warrant requests for terrorism-related surveillance – to consult with outside experts.
By turning to designated “friends of the court,” the panel can gain independent perspective when grappling with such weighty legal issues as privacy rights and civil liberties.
King saw the change within the prism of balancing privacy concerns with the need to combat terrorism.
“By creating a process whereby the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can turn to independent outsiders with specific expertise in areas such as privacy or telecommunications, we will take a vital step forward in ensuring the legal and technical implications of these programs are scrutinized appropriately,” King said in a statement.
Collins said her amendment would strengthen oversight of NSA surveillance programs by requiring that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board – an independent panel within the executive branch – is provided with copies of any applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The board would also receive copies of “any resulting court order that contains a significant or novel interpretation of the law and is related to counterterrorism.”
SANFORD VETERAN TO BE HONORED
Sanford resident Adam Cote will be honored by the White House this week with a Champions of Change award for his company’s work on heating systems that can store thermal energy.
Cote is co-founder and CEO of Thermal Energy Storage in Biddeford. The company sells electric thermal storage systems that use electricity – ideally during lower-cost, off-peak hours – to heat up special ceramic bricks that can store the heat.
He is one of 12 veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan to receive Champions of Change awards for their work on advancing clean energy or work on climate change in their communities.
Cote was credited with helping increase the availability of affordable home heating systems and enhancing the state’s energy independence.
A White House release indicated that Cote will be unable to receive the award in person, however, because he is currently deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at:
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