WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Maine judge’s appointment to U.S. District Court was blocked Wednesday by Senate Republicans upset about a “nuclear option” move by Democrats last month that they said usurped the minority party’s power.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Jon David Levy of Portland was among five judges scheduled for hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for appointment to the U.S. District Court bench. Just hours before the hearings, Republicans on the Senate floor invoked a so-called “two-hour rule,” which requires Senate committees to gain approval to meet two hours after the full Senate convenes on any given day. The approval is usually a routine matter that happens almost daily on Capitol Hill.
At issue is a party-line vote last month, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, that eliminates the filibuster as a means of blocking confirmation of certain presidential nominees. Under the nuclear option, the nominees — not including those to the U.S. Supreme Court — need only a simple majority of the Senate to vote for their appointment, as opposed to the previous 60-vote threshold.
Senate Republicans argued furiously at the time that the move limited the power of the minority party. Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond’s School of Law in Virginia, who follows judicial nomination procedures closely, said the GOP’s action on Wednesday likely had little to do with the qualifications of Levy or any of the other nominees.
“This all goes back to what happened last month when Democrats detonated the nuclear option,” said Tobias during a telephone interview. “Republicans are still mad about that so they have some procedural mechanisms they can use to prevent the nomination hearings from going forward. My sense is that this was not about the merits of the candidacies of the nominees.”
Levy declined a Bangor Daily News request for comment.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, reacted to Wednesday’s events with anger and said that all the nominees had the approval of their home-state senators.
“The Republican shutdown of the Judiciary Committee is consistent with the obstruction we have witnessed over the last five years, which has led to record-high vacancies in federal courts throughout the country,” said Leahy in a written statement. “The families of these nominees invested time and personal expense to travel to Washington for this hearing, losses they will never recover. This escalating obstruction undermines the Senate’s constitutional responsibility of advice and consent.”
Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that Collins was not involved in blocking the hearing and that there was no floor vote about it.
“Sen. Collins met with Judge Levy, and his wife this afternoon and expressed her disappointment that his nomination hearing was postponed,” said Kelley in a written statement in response to questions from the BDN. “Sen. Collins believes Judge Levy is well qualified to serve on Maine’s federal district court and she had planned to testify at his hearing. She looks forward to doing so when it is rescheduled, which she hopes is soon.”
Tobias said predicting when the hearings will be rescheduled is a guessing game, but that he suspects it will be shortly after the Senate reconvenes in early January.
Levy, who has been an associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court since 2002, was nominated by President Barack Obama for the U.S. District Court, District of Maine seat in September. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Levy would replace U.S. District Judge George Singal of Portland, who announced last year he would take senior status in July of this year but continue to handle cases. Singal, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton, has served on the federal bench since 2000.
Levy would join Nancy Torresen and John Woodcock as active-status federal judges in Maine.
Levy, who earned his undergraduate degree in 1976 and his law degree in 1979 from the West Virginia University College of Law, previously served as a Maine District Court judge from 1995 to 2002. Before he was appointed to the bench, Levy worked in private practice in York from 1983 to 1995.
He began his legal career by clerking for U.S. District Court Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. of West Virginia.