Senate tips Richmond appeals court to Democrats

AP News
Posted: Nov 09, 2009 7:25 PM

The Senate gave President Barack Obama a major victory Monday in his efforts to remake the federal courts, confirming a judge who will tip the political balance on the once-conservative appeals court based in Richmond.

The 72-16 vote for U.S. District Judge Andre Davis gives Democratic nominees a 6-5 edge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been tough in death penalty cases, backed abortion restrictions and supported President George W. Bush's detainee policies.

Davis, of Baltimore, was the sixth of Obama's court nominees to be confirmed, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Immediately after approving Davis, the Senate voted 88-0 to confirm a seventh Obama nominee _ Charlene Edwards Honeywell _ for a district court seat in Florida.

Despite the overwhelming support for both nominees, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and ranking committee Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama squared off in a never-ending battle over judges. Each blamed the other's party for years of blocking tactics.

Leahy pointed out that 28 judges were confirmed during Bush's first year. Sessions argued that the average time from nomination to confirmation for Bush's appellate court nominees was 350 days, a far longer wait than for Davis, who was nominated April 2. Sessions opposed his confirmation.

Davis had been caught in judicial politics before. President Bill Clinton nominated him for the 4th Circuit in October 2000, but the Senate didn't vote before Bush took office.

Prior to the Senate votes Monday, there were 21 appellate vacancies and 76 more for district courts. Since the Supreme Court usually hears about 80 cases a year, the appellate courts usually are the last judicial stop in deciding many of the nation's most controversial legal issues.

No appellate court has been more ripe for change than the 4th Circuit, which hears appeals from courts in West Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Virginia. Senators have battled for years over its nominees, leaving seats unfilled for years.

Before Davis' confirmation, five of the court's 15 seats were vacant. Obama has made three other nominations to the court's remaining four vacancies, leaving the circuit on the cusp of possibly reversing course from recent rulings.

The court has handled many high-profile terrorism and detainee cases and generally supported Bush's anti-terrorism initiatives.

One notable case involved Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American-born man captured during the fighting in Afghanistan and held in a military jail. In siding with the Bush administration, the circuit ruled the government has wide latitude to detain people caught fighting against the U.S. on foreign soil during wartime.

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The court has been tough in death-row cases and has backed abortion restrictions. The 4th Circuit has had the lowest capital punishment reversal rate of all the federal circuits and has upheld laws requiring parental consent for minors' abortions and banning a late-term abortion procedure.

In recent years, however, conservatives have left and the court became more ideologically balanced.

In the Senate debate, Leahy said Bush tried to pack the court with ideologues, even nominating a political operative from Virginia for a vacancy in Maryland _ someone caught stealing from a local store who pleaded guilty to fraud.

Another Republican nominee was the general counsel at the Defense Department who was the architect of Bush administration detainee policies that many Democrats call torture.

Sessions blamed Democrats for blocking Bush's nominees during the last Congress, and contended Democrats kept the Maryland appellate seat vacant for nine years.

The Republican argued that Davis misapplied the law in a number of criminal cases and was reversed often by the court on which he now will serve.