May 1, 2011

Jonathan Riskind: Delegation helps with judiciary

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, spent a lot of time during Congress' spring break in the public eye, appearing at events such as a naturalization ceremony Friday at Kennebunk Middle School for 40 new U.S. citizens.

One of the most important events, at least to the future of Maine's federal judiciary, happened in private.

Collins met last week with Nancy Torresen, President Obama's nominee for the U.S. District Court of Maine.

And in a pronouncement that should ease the mind of anyone in Maine's legal community who's worried about a prolonged vacancy, Collins said in a phone interview that she was impressed with Torresen, who's now an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Maine.

Torresen was nominated at the beginning of March. She will have her hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In March 2010, Judge D. Brock Hornby said that he would go to senior status on Maine's three-member federal district court -- although he has continued taking on a full load of cases.

Maine's two U.S. House members, Democrats Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, formed a screening committee to help them decide whom to recommend to the president. While senators confirm judicial nominees, when both of a state's senators are from a different party than the president, House members of the same party make a recommendation to the White House.

The initial recommendation to the White House last spring was Michaela Murphy, a Maine Superior Court justice. But during the vetting process, Murphy encountered health issues, which weren't disabling but were time-consuming, and withdrew her name last fall before she was ever nominated.

Pingree and Michaud then sent on the other three candidates originally named as worthy by their screening committee, and Obama chose Torresen, who would be Maine's first female federal judge.

Meanwhile, Maine's sole seat on U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit also must be filled. Judge Kermit Lipez will assume senior status by Dec. 31, or when his replacement is confirmed. Lipez, like Hornby, continues to handle a full load of cases.

Pingree and Michaud have assembled another screening committee, and expect to forward recommendations to the White House by late May.

Some in Maine's legal community worry that the openings could get trapped in a too-slow confirmation process for Obama's judicial nominees.

"Without filling vacancies on the court, you don't have a working judicial system," said Benjamin Gideon, a Lewiston-based trial attorney and a member of the progressive-oriented American Constitution Society, which tracks judicial nominations.

Gideon is a Democrat, but said he doesn't believe either party should politicize judicial nominations.

Many Democrats say the Senate Republican leadership has slowed the process as much as possible for many of the president's judicial nominees, leaving dozens of vacancies on federal district and circuit courts and a number of "judicial emergencies," with a lack of judges in some places clogging courts with cases and hindering constitutional guarantees of swift trials and justice.

Republicans say the president and his administration have been slow to send nominees to the Senate, and note that there is nothing stopping Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., from bringing nominees to the floor for debate and votes.

Russell Wheeler, an expert on the federal court system and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank in Washington, said both sides are at fault.

"There's plenty of blame to go around," Wheeler said. "You can blame Obama for not getting nominees up there as rapidly and you can blame Republican foot dragging for a lack of confirmations."

The pace of judicial confirmations appeared to pick up at the end of last year. So far this year, the Senate has confirmed 17 nominees, none receiving a single "no" vote.

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