Senate Confirms Obama’s Top Judge After Historic Filibuster Change

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Patricia Ann Millett became the newest judge on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals after the Senate confirmed her Tuesday by a vote of 56-38.

Millett made history for another reason: she was the first judge to be confirmed after the Democratic majority triggered the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster for non-Supreme Court nominees late November. She faced a sustained filibuster by Republicans, who didn’t contest her qualifications but argued that the court didn’t need any new judges.

Millett, 50, is an accomplished Supreme Court and appellate court litigator who has worked as a lawyer in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She has argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court — more than all but one other woman. Most recently she worked as a partner at the law firm Akin Gump.

The newly minted circuit judge was born in Dexter, Maine, raised in southern Illinois, graduated summa cum laude in 1985 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and magna cum laude in 1988 from Harvard Law School.

“I’m pleased that in a bipartisan vote, the Senate has confirmed Patricia Millett to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, filling a vacancy that has been open since 2005,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “She has served in the Department of Justice for both Democratic and Republican Presidents. I’m confident she will serve with distinction on the federal bench.”

Republican Sens. Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) voted with Democrats to confirm Millett. The final vote was delayed from Monday due to inclement weather.

“The president and the majority leader were for the protection of minority rights in the Senate until they were no longer in the minority,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said before the vote. “As I indicated last month, this was a pure power grab, plain and simple. … This was a grave mistake and it was a grave betrayal of trust.”

Outside Congress, Millett had broad support across the political spectrum, including from liberal legal luminaries like Walter Dellinger and Seth Waxman, and conservative stars Paul Clement, Kenneth Starr and Ted Olson. Progressive legal advocates were the most thrilled with her confirmation, hoping to tilt the balance on the conservative-leaning court which is critical to Obama’s second term agenda as it hears cases involving executive power.

“We heartily congratulate Pattie Millett on her long-awaited and well-deserved confirmation today,” said Judith E. Schaeffer, the vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal legal advocacy group. “After months of needless delay by Senate Republicans, this overwhelmingly qualified and totally uncontroversial nominee is headed for service on the D.C. Circuit. Her sterling credentials should help provide much-needed balance to a bench that has produced some truly radical decisions in recent years.”

McConnell called the D.C. Circuit “one of the last remaining obstacles standing between the president and enactment of his agenda through executive fiat.”

Democrats cut off debate on the Millett nomination by a vote of 55-43 before the Thanksgiving recess, bypassing the traditional 60 vote threshold required for “cloture” moments after scrapping the filibuster.

Following Millett to the D.C. Circuit are Cornelia Pillard and Robert Wilkins, Obama’s nominees to fill the other two vacant seats. Like Millett, they have the support of a majority of senators but haven’t cleared the now-unnecessary 60 vote marker. It’s unclear when they’ll be confirmed given the tight Senate calendar for the rest of 2013.

“Today’s up-or-down vote is a welcome step forward toward ensuring our country’s second-most powerful court has a full bench,” said Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the left-leaning American Constitution Society. “Ninety-three current vacancies remain, including 38 judicial emergencies. The Senate must continue to fulfill its constitutional duty by recommending and holding up-or-down votes on qualified individuals to serve on our federal judiciary.”

This article has been updated.

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