Christopher Casey Cooper
Christopher Casey Cooper (Photo: Diego M. Radzsinchi / NLJ)

The Senate Judiciary Committee today advanced 29 judicial nominees to the full Senate in a meeting devoid of the partisanship that accompanied the confirmation process in recent months.

The five circuit court and 24 district court nominees included Covington & Burling partner Christopher “Casey” Cooper for a spot on the federal trial court in Washington, and Munger, Tolles & Olson partners John Owens and Michelle Friedland for spots on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Democrats and Republicans agreed to approve all the nominees, most with only a voice vote. There wasn’t any back-and-forth commentary about the pace of the confirmation process for President Barack Obama’s judicial picks, which had become common during hearings last year.

The committee considered 10 nominees who were approved last year, as well as the nominees who had confirmation hearings last year but did got votes. That group included the nominations of Carolyn McHugh and Nancy Mortiz for spots on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and Harvard Law School professor David Barron for a seat on the First Circuit.

Today’s meeting could prove a bellwether for how confirmations proceed this year for nominees still awaiting votes. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) thanked Republicans for cooperation during meeting. In his opening statement he thanked Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for working with him to organize the next confirmation hearing for six nominees for Arizona. At the end of the meeting, Leahy said: “I wanted to thank Sen. Grassley for his cooperation. It helped an awful lot.”

Several nominees face opposition from Republicans. Grassley voted for Owens, but he voiced his concern about the feud over the long-vacant judgeship Owens would fill in the Ninth Circuit. Democratic senators from California and Republicans from Idaho have quarreled for more than eight years over which state gets to fill to seat for Judge Stephen Trott, who took senior status in 2004.

Grassley voiced numerous concerns about Barron for the First Circuit, saying he has advocated for positions “far outside the mainstream.” Barron, Grassley said, quoting from a New York Times article, participated in crafting the Justice Department legal memo authorizing the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens in other countries. The committee voted 10-8 to approve Barron’s nomination.

Grassley also questioned the ability of Vince Chhabria—San Francisco’s deputy city attorney—to set aside his views on religious freedom and the Second Amendment if he is confirmed to the Northern District of California. Grassley, referring to San Francisco’s gun control litigation, in November said Chhabria has a “very limited view of Second Amendment rights.” The judiciary committee today voted 13-5 to approve Chhabria.

While Democrats might still find it hard to find floor time for final confirmation votes, they should be able to overcome any Republican objections. The Senate last year changed last year to long-standing Senate rules that stripped the minority party of their ability to block judicial nominees.