WASHINGTON - The Senate confirmed Philadelphia Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo to a federal appeals court seat Monday, ending a 14-month delay that had become a flash point in a national fight over the judiciary.
Restrepo, an Eastern District of Pennsylvania judge who will fill an emergency vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, was easily approved; the vote was 82-6.
But the year-plus wait for confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate transformed his nomination into a larger political issue.
Democrats accused Republicans - including Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania - of slowing Restrepo's appointment as part of a broad effort to stall President Obama's nominees, dampening his influence on the federal bench and leaving vacancies for the next president to fill.
"The Republican leadership has subjected Judge Restrepo to totally unnecessary delay, but it's part of their wholesale obstruction of judicial nominees," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) said Monday.
He said Restrepo, born in Medellin, Colombia, would be the first Hispanic judge in Pennsylvania elevated to the circuit court, but first was "humiliated" and "told to go to the back of the line."
Toomey and Sen. Robert P. Casey (D., Pa.) both praised Restrepo.
"I am very confident that Judge Restrepo has the judicial experience, the legal acumen, the intellect, the integrity, and the dedication to public service to do the job that we expect him to do," Toomey said Monday.
The Republican, however, had absorbed months of criticism from Democrats, liberal groups, and Hispanic advocates.
Toomey, who is expected to face a tough reelection battle this year, took six months to submit his "blue slip" - a go-ahead from a home state senator that the Judiciary Committee requires before it will advance a nominee.
Toomey has said he was waiting for the panel to finish its background check.
Liberal critics scoffed, asking how a background check could take so long for Restrepo, a judge who already endured similar checks and had been easily confirmed to the federal district bench in 2013.
Restrepo was nominated to move up to the circuit court on Nov. 12, 2014.
"There is no question that Sen. Toomey did a disservice to his constituents by not pressuring GOP leadership to bring up Judge Restrepo's nomination sooner," said a news release from Christine Stone, cochair of Why Courts Matter PA.
At least one conservative group, however, pushed for stalling Obama's judges in response to the president's use of executive power. The political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote Monday that the Senate should hold no more confirmation votes "given the administration's disregard for Congress' role in our constitutional system of government."
Toomey wrote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) in December seeking a vote on Restrepo. Aides said he also spoke with McConnell about the issue before then.
As he readies for a campaign, Toomey has touted his work helping to advance judicial nominees in Pennsylvania. Only California and New York have had more federal judges confirmed in the last five years, he said Monday.
Restrepo's office said he would not comment until after his swearing-in.
He will sit on a court that hears appeals of cases filed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. His confirmation fills one of six vacancies on the federal bench in Pennsylvania, but creates a new opening at the district level.
There are four open seats in New Jersey, each a judicial emergency, a status based on caseload and the length of the vacancy.