November 3, 2013

Washington Notebook: Maine-born judicial nominee snagged by filibuster fight

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Adam Cote of Sanford will be honored by the White House with a Champions of Change award for clean energy work.

Staff file photo

Patricia Ann Millett

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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