The Senate confirmed William Kayatta Jr. of Maine to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on Wednesday, making him the first new circuit judge to take the bench since June and the first federal judge confirmed during this session of Congress.
Kayatta waited more than a year for the 88-12 confirmation vote, an illustration of how the gridlock in the Senate during the presidential election year stalled even the least controversial nominees. But the speed at which his confirmation was considered this session shows at least some cooperation from Senate leaders this year when it comes to judicial nominees.
Kayatta was first nominated in January 2012, and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved him in April on a bipartisan vote. He received support from both home state Republican senators. “If you ask virtually any attorney or judge or prosecutor or law professor, anyone involved in the law profession in Maine, they’ll tell you the president could not have made a better choice than Bill Kayatta,” Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Wednesday.
But last year, Kayatta’s nomination had stalled. Republicans were still retaliating against judicial nominees as a protest against President Barack Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Confirmation votes for circuit court judges came rarely during the first half of 2012, and often had to overcome filibusters from Republicans. In June, Democrats barely overcame a Republican block of U.S. Circuit Judge Andrew Hurwitz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who was the last circuit judge confirmed.
Republicans successfully blocked a vote on another circuit judge nominee in July, holding firm on a loosely defined Senate tradition of backing off from filling circuit court seats in the waning months of a president's term, dubbed "The Thurmond Rule."
Republicans repeatedly referred to it as the "Leahy/Thurmond Rule" to connect with the rule’s most frequent user, according to the Congressional Research Service, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
Either way, it meant no more confirmation votes for circuit judges for the rest of the year. No circuit judges were approved during the lame duck session, and Obama had to renominate Kayatta for the position in January.
This year, however, Republicans on the judiciary committee agreed to hold a vote on Kayatta without holding another hearing, despite having two new members on the committee. And Republicans did not object to holding Kayatta’s confirmation vote Wednesday.