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Sessions (left) and Leahy (AP/Photo by Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Bitter pill

Judiciary | GOP senators swallow hard as Obama judicial nominee David Hamilton is confirmed

WASHINGTON-The Senate confirmed this week controversial judicial nominee David Hamilton after months of protests by conservatives, who called Hamilton a liberal activist.

Hamilton, who will sit on a Chicago-based federal appeals court, was President Barack Obama's first judicial nominee in March. But his record caused long delays as seven other judicial nominees won Senate approval before this week's vote on Hamilton.

In April, Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee boycotted the hearing on Hamilton's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. (See "GOP boycott," April 2, 2009.)And several Republicans threatened to block this week's vote through a filibuster.

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"Judge Hamilton has used his position as a district court judge to drive a political agenda," Sen. Jeff Sessions, the highest ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, wrote in a November letter to Senate Republicans asking them to oppose the nomination. "This is one of those extraordinary circumstances where the president should be informed that his nominee is not qualified."

But the effort to block the nominee failed a test vote earlier this week, and the Senate on Thursday approved his nomination by a 59 to 39 vote.

Hamilton has said that a judge's role includes writing footnotes to the U.S. Constitution. He also has come under fire by conservative groups for numerous rulings during almost 15 years as a U.S. district judge in Indiana. Hamilton struck down an informed consent law that would give women information about abortion's risks and alternatives through counseling with her doctor. He also outlawed in the Indiana legislature the use of prayer that explicitly mentioned Jesus Christ.

In a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, Hamilton will now sit on the appeals court that reversed both of those decisions.

"His promotion to the 7th Circuit will give him jurisdiction over court cases addressing life issues from Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, which is of serious concern to the pro-life community," said Americans United for Life president Charmaine Yoest.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the state where Hamilton has served as chief judge for the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, was the only Republican to vote for Hamilton. Lugar called Hamilton "superbly qualified."

The top Democrat of the Judiciary Committee, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, chided Republicans for delaying Hamilton's approval. In a role reversal, Leahy's criticism of Republican tactics echoed the attacks Republicans used when Democrats opposed the judicial picks of former President George W. Bush.

"The president gets to nominate judges," Leahy argued, reminding Republicans of Obama's victory.

Indeed, with 21 current vacancies on the 179-judge federal appeals courts, Hamilton's approval is a loss for conservatives in the battle over the future direction of the nation's courts.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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