Caitlin Halligan, President Obama’s best hope for a Democratic appointee to the crucial federal appeals court in Washington, withdrew her name from consideration late Friday, handing a victory to Senate Republicans committed to keeping her off the bench.
In the extended, ongoing skirmish over federal judges, the D.C. Circuit, as it is known, is a slice of territory second only to the Supreme Court in terms of its importance to both sides. The court routinely issues rulings that interpret federal regulations and has long been viewed as an on-ramp to the high court. (Chief Justice John Roberts, for one, is an alumnus.)
Indeed, concerns about judges on that court ascending to the next level are what led Democrats a decade ago to filibuster Miguel Estrada, a prominent D.C. lawyer who remains in line to be the nation’s second Latino justice. The filibuster of Halligan at the hands of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his caucus can only be considered payback in a conflict that shows no sign of abating despite talk this year of filibuster reform.
Halligan, who spurned a high-paying corporate-law job in favor of advising the district attorney in Manhattan and who served as a top advocate in New York state government, sent a letter to Obama informing him of her decision to withdraw in the face of GOP opposition.
“I am deeply disappointed that even after nearly two and a half years, a minority of senators continued to block a simple up-or-down vote on her nomination,” Obama said Friday in a statement. “This unjustified filibuster obstructed the majority of senators from expressing their support. I am confident that with Caitlin’s impressive qualifications and reputation, she would have served with distinction.”
Halligan joins Goodwin Liu, a rising liberal star in legal ranks, as potential federal judges who were successfully kept from the bench by the GOP. Liu, who was a favorite of liberal interest groups, was viewed by many as potentially the first Asian-American Supreme Court justice. He now serves on the state Supreme Court in California.
The decision by Halligan is sure to revive talk among those same liberal groups that Obama simply does not have the stomach to fight for judicial nominees that his predecessor George W. Bush had. Bush, with the acquiescence of Senate Democrats, was able to land four appointees on the D.C. Circuit: Roberts, who sat on the court briefly; Thomas Griffith; Janice Rogers Brown, a highly controversial nominee from California who recently called for a repudiation of New Deal-era legal precepts; and Brett Kavanaugh, a former protégé of Kenneth Starr.
In his four years plus as president, Obama has been unable to fill any of the four vacancies on the D.C. appeals court. Halligan, 46, was first nominated to the court in 2010 (to replace Roberts five years after his departure), but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been unable to secure 60 votes for her confirmation in a series of cloture votes since, largely because of opposition from the National Rifle Association, which has contended Halligan is hostile to gun rights.
The fate of another Obama nominee to the court, Sri Srinivasan, remains in doubt. Srinivasan, who served in the solicitor general’s office in both the Bush and Obama administrations, has yet to be voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
UPDATE: The office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says Srinivasan will receive a hearing after the upcoming recess.