Search for new federal judge to be put off until next year

Posted Aug. 06, 2012, at 7:32 p.m.

Looking for someone to replace a federal judge in Maine will be put off until next year, after the presidential inauguration in January, U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree said Monday through their spokesmen.

U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal announced last week that he would assume senior status next summer.

Under ordinary circumstances that would have triggered an announcement by Maine’s two Democratic representatives that a joint committee had been formed to screen attorneys and judges interested in replacing Singal. That is what Michaud and Pingree did when U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby and 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kermit Lipez announced they would take senior status.

Hornby announced in July 2009 that he would assume senior status the following year. Michaud and Pingree launched a search for his replacement the following March. President Barack Obama nominated Nancy Torresen of Bangor to replace Hornby in March 2011 and she was confirmed by the Senate in October.

Lipez announced in April 2011 that he would take senior status Jan. 1, 2012, but said he would maintain a full caseload through this summer. A search committee was formed by Maine’s two House members, who sent the name of William Kayatta Jr. of Cape Elizabeth to the White House in late May 2011. Obama nominated Kayatta in January to replace Lipez, and he was endorsed the next following month by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

His confirmation, along with 21 other judicial nominees from around the country, is stalled in the Senate.

“This is just the latest example of how broken Congress is right now,” Michaud said Monday. “The fact that highly qualified candidates can’t even get an up-or-down vote, despite having bipartisan support, is unacceptable. Those opposed to moving forward are more interested in seeking partisan advantage than filling critical positions on the federal bench.

“Unfortunately, this partisan standoff is unlikely to stop and it’s the reality we are operating under right now,” the congressman said. “As a result, we’ll have to revisit the process of filling current vacancies next year.”

On July 30, just before Congress adjourned for its August recess, Senate Democrats failed to garner the 60 votes needed to end debate on a judicial nominee from Oklahoma. If the vote had succeeded, the logjam would have been broken and Kayatta’s nomination could have been voted on, according to Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond (Va.) Law School professor and expert on federal judicial nominations.

U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, both Republicans, have endorsed Kayatta and voted with Democrats last month so judicial nominations could be brought to a vote, according to previously published reports.

“It’s outrageous that the Senate has been dragging its feet on filling important vacancies on the federal courts,” Pingree said Monday. “Take Bill Kayatta, for example. He’s extremely well qualified and has bipartisan support, but because of election-year politics his nomination isn’t getting a vote in the Senate. Given that political reality, we’re going to wait until after the first of the year to start the process of filling the upcoming vacancy on the U.S. District Court.”

If Obama wins re-election along with Michaud and Pingree, the Democrats would be responsible for selecting a nominee to replace Singal. If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, Collins would pass along the name of a potential nominee to the White House.

Kayatta is in a more precarious situation because in January a new Senate session begins, Tobias noted. If Obama wins, he most likely would send Kayatta’s name to the Senate again. If Romney wins, Kayatta still could be the nominee with Collins’ support, but the new president also could send a new name to the Senate, the law professor said.

Kayatta has declined requests for comment since his nomination was announced.

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