WASHINGTON – The Senate's former top lawyer got bipartisan support Thursday for a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search), putting him in line to become the first of President Bush's second-term appellate nominees to be confirmed.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 14-4 to advance Utah lawyer Thomas Griffith's (search) nomination for a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for approval. It was not immediately known when the Senate will consider the nomination.
The four Democratic votes for Griffith -- Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin -- would bring a final confirmation vote to at least 59, one vote away from the magic 60 votes that preclude a filibuster if all 55 Republicans vote for him.
Democrats also have tended not to threaten filibusters on judicial nominees that can get Democratic votes in committee.
"I don't think a filibuster is an option," said Durbin, the assistant Democratic leader.
Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush's 52 appeals court nominees through filibuster threats, while allowing Republicans to confirm 34 others. Bush has had 205 district and appellate court judges confirmed while in the White House.
The Senate on Monday confirmed its first judge of the year, Paul Crotty (search) as a U.S. District judge for New York state.
Griffith replaced one of the 10 blocked nominees. Griffith was nominated to the D.C. circuit in June 2004 after lawyer Miguel Estrada (search) withdrew his nomination to that seat. Democrats had blocked Estrada's nomination until he withdrew it in September 2003.
Griffith was not voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee until Thursday.
Several Democrats have opposed Griffith. He was the Senate's general counsel during President Clinton's impeachment, but lost his District of Columbia law license for not paying bar association dues (search). He got the license back by paying what he owed.
Griffith, who became Brigham Young University's (search) general counsel in 2003, does not have a law license in Utah. He told senators during his confirmation hearing that it is not uncommon in Utah for in-house counsel not be licensed in that state and that he serves the university more as an administrator and adviser. He said he relies on staff lawyers who are licensed in Utah when Utah issues come up.
But "his disregard of basic bar rules in Utah and the District of Columbia are extremely troubling," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a statement.
Griffith's opponents also say he is hostile toward Title IX (search), the federal law against sex discrimination in college athletics.
Republicans argue that Griffith is a fine lawyer and say he has done nothing wrong.
"My colleagues recognize what I've known all along," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the former committee chairman. "Tom Griffith is a skilled, thoughtful and experienced lawyer who will make a great judge for the D.C. circuit."
The D.C. circuit is considered the most important of the regional appeals courts and a possible stepping stone to the Supreme Court. The court decides important government cases involving separation of powers, the role of the federal government, the responsibilities of federal officials and the authority of federal agencies.
It currently has five Republican appointees, four Democratic appointees and three vacancies.