McConnell backs away from judicial shutdown talk

McConnell backs away from judicial shutdown talk
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Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE is denying there’s a shutdown on President Obama’s federal court nominees —despite comments the Senate majority leader made on Thursday indicating such a freeze.

The clarification comes as several of McConnell’s GOP colleagues are working with the administration to fill circuit-court vacancies affecting their home states.

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In an interview with the conservative Hugh Hewitt show on Thursday, McConnell (R-Ky.) noted that the Senate so far this year has only confirmed federal district court nominees who had support from Republican senators.

McConnell then predicted the trend would continue.

“And do you expect that that will continue to be the case for the balance of this session?” Hewitt asked.

“I think that’s highly likely, yeah,” McConnell responded.

But McConnell spokesman Don Stewart says that doesn’t mean Obama will not get another appellate pick confirmed before he leaves office.

“He said nothing of the sort. He said we’re going to continue to do judges. There’s not a shutdown,” Stewart said. “We probably will have a circuit court nominee.”

Strategists on both sides say they do not expect a vacancy on the Supreme Court before Obama steps down.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 82, is the oldest justice and has had recent health problems, but has indicated no plans to retire.

That will leave the battles over nominees at the circuit court level.

One nominee headed for confirmation is Kara Stoll, whom Obama tapped to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. She was approved by the Judiciary Committee unanimously in April, and her nomination is set to be considered on the Senate floor.

Another likely prospect is Luis Felipe Restrepo, Obama’s choice to serve on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. He has the support of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), who faces a tough re-election next year and has come under criticism from liberal groups annoyed that Restrepo has yet to be confirmed.

Toomey said through a spokeswoman in May that he hopes Restrepo gets confirmed this year, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has scheduled a hearing on Restrepo for Wednesday.

McConnell has come under pressure from the right to block judicial nominees over Obama’s action to dramatically curtail the deportation of illegal immigrants.

“If Republican senators stick together, this is a no-lose strategy,” Curt Levey, the president of the conservative Committee for Justice, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed dated March 16.

“Either the president relents by rescinding or substantially modifying his immigration orders, or Republicans halt his leftward transformation of the circuit courts and keep judicial vacancies open for a possible GOP president in 2017,” he write.

Levey said he was cheered by McConnell’s comments Thursday to conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt.

“I thought that would be proportional and effective response to Obama’s overreach on immigration,” Levey said, when asked about McConnell’s recent comments. “Having called for it, I’m certainly happy to see it.”

Levey said that while the Senate may confirm Stoll and Restrepo and maybe a few other district court nominees, he expects few other judges to win approval before Obama leaves office.

“My guess is that it won’t be zero confirmed,” he added. “It may not be true but I’ll bet you it’ll wind up being close to true.”

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups have criticized McConnell for scheduling confirmation votes on only four district-court nominees hailing from red states so far this year.

They are three judges on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Al Bennett, George Hanks, Jr. and Jose Olvera; and Jill Parrish, a judge on the district court of Utah.

“Historically it’s a very, very slow pace of confirmations,” said Kyle Barry, the director of justice programs at the Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group.

Senate Democratic aides blasted McConnell’s comments from earlier in the week.

“Senator McConnell cannot quit his old, obstructionist ways. Days after letting critical national security tools expire on his watch, he is issuing a blanket blockade against all judges regardless of their merits,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

But Glenn Sugameli, the founder of Defenders of Wildlife, which tracks judicial nominees, raised doubts that McConnell will completely freeze circuit-court nominees.

“This is an unfortunate statement from Sen. McConnell. It suggests an unprecedented and totally unjustifiable effort to slow down vacancies but it cannot mean what some people are saying it means in headlines and sometimes in stories, which is a total shutdown,” he said.  

Sugameli noted that several Republican senators are working with the administration to fill appellate-court vacancies affecting their states.

Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby (R) and Jeff Sessions (R) are talking with the White House about putting together a slate of nominees, including one on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals left by Judge Joel Dubina, who took senior status in October of 2013.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) told the Juneau County Star Times that he is working with Obama to fill vacant court slots, including one on the 7thCircuit Court of Appeals.

Indiana Sen. Dan Coats (R) has called for the establishment of an Indiana Federal Nominating Commission to help fill several judicialvacancies, including one on the 7th Circuit, which has two open slots.

“There are senators from Alabama, from Indiana, from Wisconsin, from Texas, all of whom have court of appeals vacancies that they all say they are working to fill with Obama nominees,” said Sugameli.

He said if McConnell really intends to block votes on circuit-court nominees for the rest of the Congress, “then he’s just cut the legs out from all those senators.”