Republicans block Obama nominee for judgeship

WASHINGTON Tue Dec 6, 2011 3:12pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans on Tuesday blocked President Barack Obama's nominee for a judgeship on a key appeals court, saying her views on gun rights and national security disqualify her.

Democrats fell six votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a Republican procedural roadblock against Caitlin Halligan, a former chief appellate lawyer for New York state.

Halligan would fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that was left open six years ago when John Roberts became U.S. Supreme Court chief justice.

Considered by senators and lawyers to be the second most important U.S. court, the D.C. Circuit hears regulatory challenges and constitutional disputes. The court currently has eight judges -- three of them Democratic appointees.

After the vote, Obama urged senators to change their minds and confirm Halligan and other pending judicial nominees. He said he was "deeply disappointed" by the use of a delaying tactic known as a filibuster by Republicans.

"Today's vote dramatically lowers the bar used to justify a filibuster, which had required 'extraordinary circumstances,'" said Obama, who served four years in the Senate.

"The only extraordinary things about Ms. Halligan are her qualifications and her intellect," he said.

Halligan, 44, has argued five times before the U.S. Supreme Court and has worked on briefs in about 50 other cases before the court. She is now general counsel to Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan district attorney.

Groups that lobby for gun rights oppose Halligan and Republicans highlighted her work on lawsuits that explored liability for gun manufacturers under "public nuisance" law.

"Those lawsuits are a prime example of how activists for the far left try to use the courts to effect social policy changes that they're somehow unable or unwilling to change through the ballot box," said Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

HALLIGAN MODERATE-DEMS

Senate Democrats called Halligan a moderate. Her work on the gun lawsuits reflected the views of her boss at the time, Eliot Spitzer, who was New York's attorney general, they said.

"This is part of the far right's attempt to pull the D.C. Circuit farther and farther from the mainstream," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.

One Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, joined all 51 Democrats and two independents in voting to move the nomination forward. Voting to block it were 45 Republicans.

The two parties have delayed many of each other's nominees for the D.C. Circuit for two decades. Roberts was nominated in 1992 and 2001 before the Senate confirmed him to the court in 2003. The court last had a Democratic appointee in 1997.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the vote on Halligan "will make it nearly impossible for nominees of any president to be confirmed to this important court."

Senators have confirmed nominees for several other courts in recent weeks. On Monday, they voted to confirm Andrew Carter and Edgardo Ramos for the federal district court in Manhattan, where many business cases are held.

Halligan is the second Obama judicial nominee to be blocked in a vote. The first, Goodwin Liu, was picked for a San Francisco-based federal appeals court and later appointed to California's highest state court.

Halligan faces the choice of withdrawing or waiting for a more receptive political environment. Obama could also attempt a rare appointment during a Senate recess.

The fight drew the attention of at least one presidential candidate on Tuesday when Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry released a statement calling her a "liberal activist."

Four of the nine justices on the Supreme Court previously served on the D.C. Circuit.

(Reporting by David Ingram, Thomas Ferraro and Kim Dixon; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bill Trott)

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