WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate confirmed one of President Barack Obama's key judicial nominees on Monday, completing an overhaul of the country's second most powerful court into one dominated by Democratic-appointed judges.
The Senate voted 55-43 to confirm Robert Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That gives Democratic appointees a 7-4 majority on the politically influential bench. The D.C. Circuit, second in clout only to the Supreme Court, hears appeals of White House actions and federal rules and regulations.
Wilkins' confirmation is a fresh demonstration of Senate Democrats' ability to push through most presidential nominations by a simple majority, thanks to a weakening of filibusters that they muscled through the chamber in November.
It came on the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments about a constitutional provision relating to temporary presidential appointments. At issue is Obama's use of the provision to make so-called recess appointments, which presidents can make without Senate approval.
Obama applauded the confirmation of Wilkins, who was previously approved unanimously by the Senate for a district judgeship. Obama said Wilkins would bring important perspective to the D.C. Circuit.
"He has applied the law with the utmost impartiality and integrity," Obama said in a statement. "I am confident that he will continue to do so on the D.C. Circuit."
Republicans' resistance to many Obama nominees, including judges, prompted Democrats to change years of Senate filibuster tradition. Instead of requiring 60 votes to move nominations forward, the Senate can advance almost all presidential nominees on a simple majority vote. The only exceptions are nominees to the Supreme Court.
The change virtually assured Wilkins' confirmation. In a just over a month, the Senate has confirmed two other Obama nominees to the court, Patricia Millett and Cornelia "Nina" Pillard.
Republicans again criticized the rules changes on Monday, though they said little about Wilkins' credentials.
"Our politics today desperately need the cooling saucer of the Senate," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The action by the majority leader to make it easier to consider nominations on a purely partisan basis went in the wrong direction."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary panel, said Wilkins, who is black, would bring a "diverse personal and professional background help further enrich the judiciary."
Republicans and Democrats have bitterly fought over appointments to the D.C. Circuit. But none disputes the court's influence, which stems from its caseload and its reputation as something of a proving ground for the Supreme Court. Four of the high court's justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, previously served on the D.C. Circuit.
In addition to its 11 active judges, the D.C. Circuit also has six senior judges who handle a reduced caseload. Five of the senior judges were appointed by Republicans and one by a Democrat.
Until recently, the court had been a source of frustration for Obama.
Republicans repeatedly blocked his first nominee to it, Caitlin Halligan, until she withdrew her nomination. Sri Srinivasan was confirmed to the court in May, but Republican senators promised to stop any further nominees to the court. They said the bench did not have enough work to warrant filling its vacancies.
In November, under old procedures, Senate Republicans had blocked Wilkins' nomination. Furious, Democrats noted that Wilkins had been confirmed for a district judgeship in 2010 by a voice vote.
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