WASHINGTON — By an 88-12 vote, Cape Elizabeth lawyer William Kayatta Jr. on Wednesday became the first judicial nominee of President Barack Obama’s second term — and the first in seven months — to win U.S. Senate confirmation. It has been a long time coming.
Obama first nominated Kayatta, 59, to fill a vacancy on the Court of Appeals for the 1st District on Jan. 23, 2012. After a March hearing during which Kayatta won bipartisan praise, the Senate Judiciary Committee in April favorably reported Kayatta’s nomination to the full Senate.
But along with other presidential nominations for judgeships, Kayatta’s languished throughout 2012, after minority Republicans in the Senate in June invoked the Thurmond Rule, named after former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. The unofficial rule allows the party that does not hold the presidency to delay up-or-down votes on lifetime judicial nominations during the latter stages of a presidential election campaign.
Senate Republicans’ decision to apply the Thurmond Rule as early as June and to a noncontroversial candidate such as Kayatta made him a pawn in an election year political game, according to Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond who specializes in judicial nomination process and history.
But Kayatta’s politics played a minimal role in delaying his nomination. Federal Election Commission records show that he donated $1,000 to the Obama for America committee in 2007. That year, he also donated to Maine Democrat Tom Allen’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 2008 and to Adam Cote’s unsuccessful attempt to win the Democratic primary for Maine’s 1st U.S. House District.
Only two of the 18 Judiciary Committee members, Republicans Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Mike Lee of Utah, opposed his initial nomination and only Sessions voted against his renomination.
After Obama won re-election in November, Republican Sen. Susan Collins wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urging a vote to confirm Kayatta before the end of 2012. Retiring U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe also supported the nomination.
But no vote took place, and Kayatta’s nomination expired with dozens of others that Obama proposed to fill more than 70 federal judicial vacancies.
Obama renominated Kayatta on Jan. 3, and the Senate Judiciary Committee again voted favorably on the nomination. Collins and Snowe’s successor, Angus King, heartily endorsed him.
In advocating for Kayatta’s confirmation in comments to the full Senate before Wednesday’s vote, Collins lauded his intelligence, experience and integrity.
“I cannot tell you how highly regarded he is in Maine’s legal circles,” she said. “They will tell you that the president could not have made a better choice.”
No one spoke against Kayatta’s nomination Wednesday. Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., did comment on the negative impact delaying the Senate confirmation process has had on the federal judicial system.
No Democrat or independent opposed the nomination. Among the Republicans who voted against it were McConnell, Rand Paul of Tennessee and Marco Rubio of Florida. The latter two gave tea party and Republican responses to Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday.
Since he took office at the beginning of January, King has pushed the Senate to confirm Kayatta. He and Collins stood together on the Senate floor as the senators voted.
“His installation on the First Circuit Court of Appeals, although long-awaited, is certainly a well-deserved victory — for both Bill and for Maine,” King said in a statement. “As I have long said, Bill is a brilliant lawyer and he’s extraordinarily well-qualified for the position — and I believe that the broad bipartisan support his nomination garnered today is a reflection of the Senate’s agreement. I wish Bill the very best of luck as he assumes his judgeship.”
In a joint statement, Maine’s two U.S. representatives, Democrats Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, praised the confirmation,
“While this vote took too long to happen, we’re pleased the Senate has approved the nomination of Bill Kayatta for the First Circuit Court of Appeals,” Michaud and Pingree said, noting that they submitted Kayatta’s name to Obama in 2011. “He is highly qualified and will serve our country with integrity.”
Kayatta succeeds Judge Kermit Lipez, who more than a year ago took active senior status after having served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st District, which is based in Boston, since 1998.
In a prepared statement released after Wednesday’s vote, Kayatta thanked Obama for “his confidence in nominating me” and Maine’s current congressional delegation and Snowe for proposing and supporting his nomination. He singled out Collins “for her unwavering leadership in marshalling my nomination through the Senate from beginning to end.”
Tobias described Kayatta as an exemplary nominee and said his confirmation represents “a good thing for Maine and the 1st Circuit,” which, with only six active judges when all slots are filled, is the smallest in the nation. He’s also optimistic that Kayatta’s confirmation will break the partisan Senate logjam that has prevented votes on judicial nominees for more than half a year.
“It’s been more than seven months since they confirmed an appellate judge,” Tobias said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Kayatta, a partner with Pierce Atwood of Portland with more than 30 years of legal experience, grew up in South Portland and graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School, according to his profile on Pierce Atwood’s website. He is past president of the Maine Bar Association and in 2010 received the Maine Bar Foundation’s Dana Award for his work with low-income Mainers.
Kayatta will likely be sworn in and at work for the federal appeals court by the end of February, Tobias said.