WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday confirmed Michael W. Fitzgerald as a federal trial judge for a vast region stretching from San Luis Obispo to Orange counties in California, after a political endurance contest that's now standard practice on Capitol Hill.
Nominated last July, Fitzgerald had to wait four months following his unanimous Senate Judiciary Committee approval in November before winning confirmation Thursday afternoon on a 91-6 vote. Democrats finally threatened a series of special votes to break the Republican delay of Fitzgerald and other candidates.
"His confirmation is long overdue," said Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who recommended that Fitzgerald be nominated. "It really shouldn't take this long to confirm such a highly regarded nominee."
The Republican slow-walking had nothing to do with Fitzgerald's politics, his legal qualifications or his status as an openly gay man. The 52-year-old Fitzgerald will become the fourth openly gay judge serving on the federal bench, prompting Boxer to call his confirmation "historic."
But much like Democrats when the shoe was on the other foot, Senate Republicans do not yield easily to White House choices for lifetime appointments.
Before John Roberts Jr. was named to the Supreme Court, for instance, he waited two years to win confirmation in 2003 as a judge on a lower appellate court. Another highly regarded GOP appellate pick, Miguel Estrada, withdrew his name that year after waiting two years for an up-or-down vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Republicans, in turn, blame Obama for moving slowly. The president has not yet nominated anyone to about half of the current federal judicial vacancies.
"The president needs to hurry up if he wants to receive consideration," said Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It hasn't always been this way.
In January 1991, for instance, Fresno, Calif., attorney Oliver Wanger was nominated to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush. The Senate confirmed him two months later
Fitzgerald was one of 17 stalled judicial nominees, but the only one for a California seat, on whose behalf Senate Democrats made a concerted effort. This week, the two parties finally cut a deal that will allow votes on 14 judges by May 7.
Now, Fitzgerald will have his work cut out for him in the Central District of California. In the year ending in March 2011, 14,810 civil cases and 1,340 criminal cases were initiated in the six-county judicial district, the most populous in the nation.
The San Luis Obispo cases are heard in one of two federal courthouses in downtown Los Angeles. The busy position has been vacant long enough to be classified as a "judicial emergency" by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
"There's never any good reason for the Senate not to proceed on these nominations," said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, adding that senators "get elected to vote yes or no."
A Los Angeles native, Fitzgerald graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and earned his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He served several years as a federal prosecutor, including work in the organized crime and drug enforcement section.
"My cases included the seizure of over two tons of cocaine, at the time the second-largest seizure in California history," Fitzgerald noted on his Senate questionnaire.
Fitzgerald then went into private practice representing clients ranging from the Bank of America to criminal defendants, as well as a group of gay and lesbian Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and applicants who complained of discrimination.
As a volunteer, Fitzgerald reported having worked on Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, as well as on the "No on 8" campaign that opposed the California ballot measure limiting marriage to that between a man and woman.
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