This post was updated at 6:57 p.m. with additional reporting.
President Barack Obama is beginning to take a tougher line with Republican senators who object to his choice of federal judges.
In an apparent first for Obama, this week he announced a new nominee over the objections of the two senators from the nominee’s state. The nomination, of prosecutor Arvo Mikkanen for a judgeship in Oklahoma, is unusual because Obama has been careful to take recommendations from home-state senators, including Republicans, or at least to clear nominees with them.
The nomination came one day after White House Counsel Robert Bauer, in a speech about judicial nominees, expressed frustration with delays in the Senate confirmation process.
Mikkanen has been nominated for U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, where he’s been an assistant U.S. attorney since 1994. He previously served as a tribal court judge, according to his biography as president of the Oklahoma Indian Bar Association.
If confirmed, Mikkanen would be the only American Indian serving as an active federal district judge and the third in U.S. history, according to Federal Judicial Center records.
The choice does not have the support of Oklahoma’s two U.S. senators or its lone Democratic congressman. “I believe he is unacceptable for the position and another example of how politics in Washington neglect to take into account what is best for the people of Oklahoma,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a news release. Coburn did not elaborate on what he meant by “politics in Washington,” and a spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment today.
Coburn added in his statement that he is “deeply disappointed in the White House’s lack of consultation with me on this nomination. I hope we can work together in the future to find a nominee for this seat whom I can support.”
A spokesman for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Inhofe is inclined to oppose the nominee because White House officials did not follow the usual process of consulting the congressional delegation. “We haven’t met with Mr. Mikkanen. We don’t know much about his background or his judicial philosophy,” the spokesman, Jared Young, said today.
Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), the only Democrat from the state in Congress, called the nomination a “misstep,” according to the Tulsa World.
A White House official disagreed with the suggestion that the delegation was not consulted. “We did reach out to the members of the delegation about this excellent nominee, and we look forward to his speedy consideration and confirmation by the Senate,” the official wrote in an e-mail, on condition of anonymity.
Keith Harper, a partner in the Washington office of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, said Mikkanen’s record deserves a close look. “He’s the kind of guy you’d want on the bench. If people knew his record, knew what he’s done, they would see he’s the kind of candidate the bar would fine exemplary,” said Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who has worked with Mikkanen through bar associations.
As a federal prosecutor, Mikkanen has been especially attentive to crime involving American Indians, Harper said. “In Indian country, we have epidemic levels of violence in some places,” he said. “He’s been one of the people in that conversation that has had a helpful voice.”
The American Bar Association's committee on the federal judiciary has unanimously rated Mikkanen as "qualified," the middle of its three ratings.
Last month, Obama put forward other judicial picks over home-state opposition, notably two nominees from Wisconsin despite objections by newly sworn Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Those nominees were first announced, though, during the previous Congress, with the support of then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), and they still have support from Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).
The Mikkanen nomination could prove to be a test for Senate procedure. When George W. Bush was president, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would often deny a hearing to a nominee who had opposition from home-state senators. But Leahy has left open the possibility of going around home-state senators in some cases. Conservatives have accused him of being inconsistent on the so-called “blue slip” rule.