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Judicial Wars Flare As Senate Blocks Obama Nominee

Senate Republicans have blocked the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. A Senate majority of 54 voted to break the filibuster, but that number falls short of the 60 votes needed under Senate rules.

Although Halligan won bipartisan praise from legal and law enforcement groups, Republicans portrayed her as a left-wing activist for positions she took while representing the state of New York as its chief appellate lawyer.

Prior to that Halligan had served as chief of the appellate section of a top-tier law firm. She now is counsel for the Manhattan district attorney. The American Bar Association gave her its highest rating. Democrats said that Republicans had deliberately twisted and mischaracterized her record.

The Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley, was candid about GOP reasons for opposing Halligan, all but conceding that it is payback for Democrats stalling on judicial nominations when George W. Bush was president. Grassley said that six of President Bush's nominees, including now Chief Justice John Roberts, endured "delays, filibusters, multiple hearings, and other forms of obstruction."

Grassley also noted that Halligan is only 44 and that the D.C. Circuit Court has often been a stepping stone to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tuesday's vote would seem to signal the end of a 2005 agreement between Democrats and Republicans to end the judicial wars in the Senate by barring filibusters except in extraordinary circumstances.

President Obama in a statement said that "the only extraordinary things about Halligan were her qualifications and her intellect." Using unusually strong language, the president said Halligan "fell victim to a Republican pattern of obstructionism that puts party ahead of country."

Mr. Obama said that Senate Republicans are currently blocking 20 other "highly qualified judicial nominees," half of whom were nominated to fill vacancies deemed "judicial emergencies" by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. He noted that most of these nominees were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a unanimous vote, "only to run into partisan roadblocks on the Senate floor."

Only one Republican voted to end Tuesday's filibuster. Alaska's Lisa Murkowski said judicial nominees deserve an up or down vote except in extraordinary circumstances, and that this was not such a circumstance. But she added that she would not have voted for Halligan's confirmation.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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