On Monday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Pamela Harris to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, jumpstarting the stalled fight over President Obama’s judicial nominees.
The Senate confirmed Harris by a 50-43 vote, taking up her nomination before that of Jill Pryor, a nominee to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and deviating from the typical practice of voting for judges in order.
Pryor has been waiting since mid-June for a confirmation vote from the Senate. Pryor’s nomination was part of a package deal with Republicans that included the nomination of Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs to the federal district court. Boggs’ nomination has come under fire from advocacy organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and civil rights leaders who question his past support of a host of anti-choice and anti-equality measures. Concern over the Boggs nomination has reached Senate Democrats, who have one by one announced opposition to Boggs, leaving the nomination in limbo.
The legal community broadly supported Harris’ nomination, and she received a unanimous “Well Qualified” rating from the
American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. A former appellate litigator from the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and a senior advisor to Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute, Harris has described her view of the Constitution as a “profoundly progressive document,” a statement Republicans like Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) used as a basis of their opposition to Harris.
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In a veiled reference to Pryor and Boggs’ nominations, Grassley accused Democrats of skipping past other circuit court nominees to move quickly on Harris’ nomination in an effort to “stack” the court while it considers legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. “The other side wants to stack the Fourth Circuit just like they did the D.C. Circuit,” Grassley said on the Senate floor. “Because the Fourth Circuit hears a disproportionate number [of] significant cases involving federal law and regulations, just like the D.C. Circuit. So my colleagues should understand that a vote for this nominee is also a solid vote for Obamacare as the cases make their way through that court.”
It was the battle over President Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and repeated Republican obstructionist tactics that prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to invoke the so-called nuclear option and change Senate rules to prevent the filibuster of most presidential appointments.
Harris’ appointment to the Fourth Circuit is an important one and in many ways represents a snapshot of the evolving federal judiciary under the Obama administration. The Fourth Circuit was once considered one of the more conservative federal appeals courts in the country, but thanks to a slew of appointments by President Obama it has become more centrist, with a majority of the 15-member court appointed under a Democratic president. As a private practice attorney, Harris reflects that centrist approach.
Harris’ appointment makes her only the sixth woman ever to sit on the Fourth Circuit, and brings the percentage of active female
appellate judges overall to nearly 35 percent.