Members of the Black legal, legislative and civil rights communities are gearing up for a fight over the confirmation of Judge Robert Leon Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the nation’s second highest court.
Senate Republicans are expected to block Wilkins’ nomination as the latest salvo in an ongoing partisan battle.
The confirmation of another Obama nominee, Georgetown University law professor Cornelia Pillard, was derailed on Nov. 12 when Democrats failed to amass the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster that has held up her confirmation.
It was the third time Republicans had blocked an Obama nominee to the same court—attorneys Patricia Millett and Caitlin Halligan were similarly stymied by GOP procedural delays.
Republicans have argued that the D.C. Circuit, which is currently operating with 3 of its 11 seats vacant, does not have the case load to justify 11 judges. And, they further allege, the president’s attempts to fill those seats is an attempt to pack the court to advance his agenda. The D.C. Circuit has special jurisdiction over the actions and regulations of federal agencies and is often viewed as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court.
Democrats, however, said those GOP claims are bogus, and that Republicans are simply continuing their all-out partisan assault on the Obama White House.
Republicans have blocked the confirmations of three eminently qualified women for “a blatantly political reason: to deny the president his constitutional right to appoint judges,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in statements on the Senate floor Nov. 12.
“Republicans claim the court doesn’t need 11 judges. But that’s not what they said when President Bush filled several vacant seats on the court,” Reid added. “When George W. Bush was president, Senate Republicans happily filled the 9th, 10th and 11th seats on the D.C. Circuit—the same three seats President Obama seeks to fill today—even though the court had a smaller caseload at the time.”
Reid filed a cloture motion to close debate and end the filibuster, which moved Wilkins’ nomination closer to confirmation.
The National Bar Association, the nation’s preeminent association of predominantly African-American lawyers and judges, has launched a campaign in support of Wilkins, whom they endorsed.
“The D.C. Circuit is too important to fall victim to partisan politics—Judge Wilkins deserves his floor vote,” the group said in an advocacy brief.
In the brief, the NBA asked its supporters to call their senators and push them to support Wilkins’ nomination, and to publicize the situation in newsletters and listservs and flood the social networks with information and support for Wilkins’ confirmation.
Tanya Clay House, public policy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said their organization has similar plans to advocate on Judge Wilkins’ behalf.
“We’re going to push Republicans to stop hiding behind politics [and] to do what’s right,” House told the AFRO.
The GOP’s stalling tactics are creating more divisiveness in Washington, she added, and “increasing the public’s perception that this Congress is not interested in doing its job.”
“This situation is affecting people on an everyday basis, people who are seeking remedies in the court for the issues facing them,” House added. “But this Congress is not listening because they are more interested in blocking the president from doing his job.”
In 2010, Wilkins was successfully confirmed to the U.S. District Court by unanimous consent. Before that, he worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C., for 10 years, then in 2002 he began practicing as a partner with Venable LLP, specializing in white-collar defense, intellectual property and complex civil litigation.
Wilkins received his juris doctorate from Harvard Law School.