Senate Republicans Obstruct Third Judicial Nominee, Triggering Filibuster War

CREDIT: Associated Press

Judge Robert Wilkins, the only person confirmed to the federal bench this year

Senate Republicans blocked a third nominee to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit late Monday, triggering a pledge by Democrats to change the Senate rules by invoking the “nuclear option” and prevent similar obstruction in the future.

Robert L. Wilkins, like the two filibustered nominees before him, is an outstanding candidate who would diversify the court. Wilkins is a former public defender — a rare background for federal judicial nominees. He led a series of high-profile lawsuits on racial profiling by police that popularized the term “driving while black.” And he has been serving on the D.C. Circuit’s trial court since 2010. But Senate Republicans voted 53-38 to invoke cloture Monday, meaning Wilkins’ nomination, like that of fellow nominees Nina Pillard and Patricia Millett, is now stalled.

Senate Republicans have not overtly objected to much about Wilkins’ background. Instead, they have claimed the deeply conservative D.C. Circuit (which, most recently, called the Affordable Care Act’s coverage of birth control a “grave moral wrong“) doesn’t need anymore judges, belying their interest in keeping a Republican stronghold on the court by blocking all three of President Obama’s nominees.

Republicans are able to keep these seats vacant even though they don’t have control of the White House or the Senate through the filibuster, which allows them to block an up-or-down vote if just 41 senators oppose or abstain. Many of the senators who voted to perpetuate this filibuster pledged during the George W. Bush administration never to filibuster a judicial nominee, and some even claimed it was unconstitutional.

Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) lamented Monday that Republicans have now moved from “use of the Senate rules to abuse of the Senate rules.” Which is why Democrats are now poised to nuke ’em.