The Senate Judiciary Committee today overwhelmingly endorsed two presidential nominees for prominent legal positions: Andre Davis for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and Thomas Perez for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
But, in a warm-up for the confirmation debate over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, senators divided sharply along party lines over Judge David Hamilton of Indiana, nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
The three nominations now head to the full Senate.
Davis, a federal judge for the District of Maryland, would fill one of four vacancies on the historically conservative 4th Circuit. He was previously nominated by President Bill Clinton but not confirmed, and in his career he's also been a state judge, law professor, and lawyer in private practice. Senators voted 16-3 in favor of his nomination, with Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) voting against it.
Sessions, the committee's top Republican, said he worried about 4th Circuit rulings that reversed Davis' suppression of evidence in six criminal cases. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said the number of reversals was not unusual given that Davis has been on the District Court since 1995.
"If you use that standard on reversals, I'm afraid we'll never get a District Court judge confirmed on an appellate court," Cardin said.
Senators voted 17-2 to endorse Perez, now Maryland's labor secretary, to be assistant attorney general for civil rights. Coburn and Sessions opposed him, with Sessions citing, among other things, Perez's work with CASA de Maryland, which advocates for Latino immigrants.
The nomination of Hamilton, a judge in the Southern District of Indiana, was more controversial. Republicans criticized his rulings in establishment clause cases, and they used his nomination to launch a broad criticism of Obama's judicial philosophy. Sessions even accused the president of attempting an "FDR-style packing of the federal bench," though Obama has not proposed adding any new federal judgeships.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the GOP whip, said Republicans are ready for a debate over Obama's statements in favor of empathy in judges. He said empathy should never have a role, even in the closest of cases. "There is always a legal reason to rule one way or another. You don't have to default to what's in your heart," he said.
"Look at the scales of justice," replied Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "This isn't just law. It's also humanity."