Toomey urges judge's confirmation as critics take aim

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) on Monday urged Senate Republican leaders to schedule a vote on a long-delayed appellate court nominee from Philadelphia, a move his critics say was long overdue.

Toomey wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) Monday morning asking for a final vote on Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo "without delay," urging confirmation of a judge nominated more than a year ago to fill a judicial emergency on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals -- and who, for Democrats, has become a symbol of GOP obstruction.

"I recognize that some of my colleagues have heartfelt concerns," about confirming Restrepo, Toomey wrote. "That said, I believe Judge Restrepo is an excellent, qualified nominee." He added, "prompt action is warranted."

Earlier this year Toomey said he was "confident" Restrepo would be confirmed by year's end, but with just weeks to go, the judge hasn't been scheduled for a final vote and Republicans have moved on to other nominees. Toomey's letter came hours before the Senate was set to skip over Restrepo and vote to confirm another judge who had been nominated a week later -- adding to the left's criticism over the judge's wait.

Democrats and liberal groups have accused Republicans, and specifically Toomey, of slow-walking Restrepo's nomination as part of a concerted effort to delay President Obama's judicial nominees.

Toomey’s "long overdue letter" is "welcome," wrote Glenn Sugameli, a Washington attorney and environmental activist who closely follows judicial nominations, but he criticized Republicans for not acting faster.

Restrepo’s nomination has already been "inexcusably delayed," said a Sugameli statement. "Securing a vote this year is vital but it is far too late to vote ‘without delay.’”

Shaping the judiciary is one of the quieter but more significant ways a president can leave a lasting impact. Democrats have accused Republicans of stalling, confirming far fewer Obama nominees than Democrats allowed under President George W. Bush. While Republicans dispute the data, Democrats believe the slow process is a response to Obama's executive actions, which riled the GOP. Pennsylvania has one of the largest counts of vacant judicial seats.

The American Bar Association wrote McConnell last week urging faster confirmation of 15 pending nominees, most more than 200 days old, and adding that there are 22 more vacancies now than when the GOP took control of the Senate in January.

Restrepo's nomination to a court that hears appeals from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the U.S. Virgin Islands has become one of the central flash-points of the partisan dispute.

If he isn't confirmed by year's end, the confirmation process -- already approaching 13 months -- could have to start over.

No objections to Restrepo have been made in public. The Senate confirmed him to a district court seat in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by voice vote in 2013. He cleared the Judiciary Committee in another voice vote in July as he tries to move up to the third circuit.

Hispanic civil rights activist Dolores Huerta blasted the move Monday to pass over Restrepo and vote for another nominee.

"Republicans are once again using obstructionist tactics in a way that harms our country, and this time, it impacts Latinos in particular," Huerta said in a release from the left-leaning People for the American Way, where she is a board member. "We can’t let Senate Republicans get away with this blatant, partisan obstruction."

McConnell is " well aware" of Restrepo's nomination "as Sen. Toomey has been constantly bending the leader’s ear on this," wrote McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. He had no announcement on when a confirmation vote might be scheduled.

Democrats have long complained that Toomey either has not pushed hard enough to get Restrepo confirmed, or has actively blocked him. They criticized the senator earlier this year for taking five months to turn in his "blue slip" -- an informal OK required from a nominee's home senators -- even while he praised Restrepo's nomination.

Toomey had said he was waiting for the Senate Judiciary Committee to complete its background check before turning in the paper. Liberal critics dismissed that explanation, noting that Restrepo had been confirmed by the Senate less than two years earlier.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nevada) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), the top Democrat on the judiciary committee, have repeatedly blasted Toomey on the Senate floor, including in November, when Restrepo's nomination passed the one-year mark.

Toomey is also a top Democratic traget in next year's elections.

Restrepo, a former civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia, has been praised by both Toomey and Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.). He was nominated on Nov. 12, 2014.

In a statement Monday, Casey said Restrepo is an "excellent nominee" who should be confirmed "right away."


You can follow Tamari on Twitter or email him at jtamari@phillynews.com.

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