Judge David Sentelle, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, will be taking senior status in February, according to the U.S. Courts website.
The move opens a fourth vacancy on the 11-judge court for President Barack Obama to try to fill during his second term. Obama did not get any judges confirmed to the D.C. circuit during his first term, and his nomination of Caitlin Halligan has met with strong resistance from Republicans in the Senate.
Sentelle, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, became chief judge in 2008, at the beginning of Obama's first term. At the time, there already was a vacancy on that court when John Roberts Jr. was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. Since then, Judge Raymond Randolph took senior status in November 2008 and Judge Douglas Ginsburg also took senior status in October 2011.
Those are now long-standing vacancies. Obama chose Srikanth Srinivasan, principal deputy solicitor general of the United States, and Halligan, general counsel for the New York County District Attorney's office.
Srinivasan, nominated in June, has not had a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nomination of Halligan has been twice returned to the White House. In a procedure related to the summer recess this month, Senate Republicans agreed to keep alive all judicial nominations over the break except Halligan's. Republicans used the same type of block to end the nominations of Halligan and five other judicial nominees in December.
Obama said in a statement in June that he was "deeply disappointed" in the returned Halligan nomination and urged "her reconsideration, especially given her broad bipartisan support from the legal and law enforcement communities." Obama re-re-nominated Halligan in September.
Sentelle sent a retirement letter to Obama dated Oct. 24. The letter is pro forma, the U.S. Courts spokesman said, and concludes: "It is my intention to render substantial judicial service as a senior judge."
The U.S. Courts did not immediately respond to calls for comment. Sentelle was not immediately reached for comment about his decision.
Judge Merrick Garland, appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1997, is next in line to be the chief. Garland served at the U.S. Justice Department as the principal associate deputy attorney general from 1994 until his appointment.