The U.S. Senate confirmed two nominees to the federal bench in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Thursday, whittling the number of open seats in that district to four.
Nitza Quinones Alejandro, a former judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, was unanimously confirmed on a voice vote, and Jeffrey Schmehl, a former judge on the Berks County Court of Common Pleas, was unanimously confirmed on a roll call vote.
Both had been nominated with U.S. Magistrate Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo last November and the trio had moved together through the Judiciary Committee in March.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond’s law school who tracks judicial vacancies, guessed that Restrepo is probably next in line for a vote that will likely be held next week.
"Three was too many for the GOP to swallow at once," he said, explaining that the Senate, which has a Republican minority, hasn’t confirmed three judges at a time in years.
A roll call vote can be requested by the minority party and requires each senator to vote individually on the record, as opposed to a voice vote, which requires only a majority of yeas or nays to carry the vote.
Asked why the Republicans might have asked for a roll call vote on Schmehl, Tobias said, "Who knows. I don’t get it," adding that neither candidate was controversial and both are well qualified, and that senators may not have wanted to go on the record as voting against Quinones Alejandro. She is the first Latina to be confirmed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and the first openly gay Latina to be confirmed to the federal judiciary, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights group.
Pennsylvania’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey, issued a joint statement congratulating the Senate on its bipartisan confirmation of the two judges.
Through a roughly yearlong process involving a committee appointed by the two senators, they recommended Quinones Alejandro, Schmehl and Restrepo to the White House, which nominated them for confirmation by the Senate.
Quinones Alejandro is set to take the seat left open by U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who took senior status in early 2011, and Schmehl is set to take the seat left open by U.S. District Judge Thomas Golden of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania when he died in the summer of 2010.
Four seats remain open with no nominees yet named — the seat now open for the longest time became vacant in the fall of 2011 and the most recent opened last month when Chief Judge J. Curtis Joyner took senior status.
The Western District of Pennsylvania also has one open seat, since Chief Judge Gary Lancaster died in April.
The bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit will also soon have two vacancies, as Judge Dolores K. Sloviter, who was chief of the circuit for most of the 1990s, has submitted her letter to the president to say that she will take senior status on June 21.
Next month, another former chief of the Third Circuit will take senior status as Judge Anthony Scirica takes senior status.
In April, the Senate confirmed Patty Shwartz, a former federal magistrate judge in New Jersey, to fill the seat left open by Judge Maryanne Trump Barry when she took senior status. Shwartz’s confirmation came 18 months after she was first nominated by the White House.
Sloviter, the first woman to serve on the Third Circuit, told President Obama in her official letter of resignation that she plans to maintain 80 percent of her current workload when she accepts status as a senior judge of the court later this month.
The letter, which was released by Sloviter’s chambers Thursday, was dated June 4. Her resignation is set to become effective June 21, exactly 34 years after she took her seat on the Third Circuit as an appointee of President Jimmy Carter. Sloviter served as chief judge of the Third Circuit for most of the 1990s.
"During my tenure, I have had the opportunity to participate in the consideration of some of the most challenging and interesting issues to have come before the federal courts," she wrote in her letter to Obama.
The longtime judge told Obama that it had been a privilege to serve on the court for more than three decades. "I cannot imagine any job in which I would have had an equivalent opportunity to serve this country," Sloviter wrote.