Pamela Harris.
Pamela Harris. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)

The Senate on Monday confirmed Pamela Harris to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, a vote that reignited debate over the judicial confirmation process.

The Senate typically votes on judges in order. That didn’t happen with Harris. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., brought up Harris’ nomination before that of Jill Pryor, who had been waiting for a vote to sit on the Eleventh Circuit. The Senate voted, 50-43, to confirm Harris.

The Fourth Circuit became a key battleground last week over the Obama administration’s domestic agenda when a three-judge panel sided with the government in a dispute over health care subsidies. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, took to the floor ahead of the Harris vote to express his dismay about the timing of the confirmation vote.

“Professor Harris is being fast-tracked to the Fourth Circuit, just in time for another en banc appeal, should one materialize,” Grassley said.

The Fourth Circuit ruling came just two hours after a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit sided with the challengers in a similar suit against Affordable Care Act subsidies. The conflicting rulings moved the next major battle over the Affordable Care Act closer to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The showdown last fall over President Barack Obama’s three nominees to the D.C. Circuit first led Republicans to accuse Democrats of filling a key appeals court to push the president’s domestic agenda past any court challenges.

Last year’s Senate rules reform—a simple majority can now end a filibuster—allowed Harris’ nomination to overcome the “hyperpartisan obstruction” from Republicans, said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance For Justice.

“Judge Harris’ confirmation also gives the Fourth Circuit a full complement of active judges,” Aron said in a statement. “All vacancies on the First, Ninth and, of course, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals also have been filled—and none of that would have happened if not for rules reform.”

Republicans opposed the nomination of Harris, a former O’Melveny & Myers appellate partner. Democrats said she was highly qualified for the post. Harris’ confirmation further shifts the composition of the 15-member Fourth Circuit under Obama’s presidency.

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com. On Twitter: @ToddRuger.