Carney wins easy Senate confirmation to federal appeals court

WASHINGTON–Connecticut’s Susan Carney cruised to confirmation Tuesday, with the full Senate approving her nomination to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals by a vote of 71-28.

The Senate tally catapults Carney from her post as deputy general counsel at Yale University’s General Counsel’s office , where she has worked for more than 12 years, to a seat on the federal bench, where she will hear appeals from lower courts in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.

The two-hour debate over her candidacy was a temperate affair, with only one senator using the session to criticize her nomination. Lawmakers devoted more time to talking about high gas prices and other contentious issues than they did to Carney’s bid to join the federal bench.

“Ms. Carney has truly impressive credentials for appointment to the federal bench,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in opening Tuesday morning’s debate. Blumenthal said her range of experience–from clerking for a federal judge to her 17 years in private practice to more than a decade at Yale–“will serve her well on the bench.”

He said her time at Yale, in particular, has exposed to her to “a diverse swath” of legal issues, from copyright law to international trade agreements. And her pro bono work, he added, demonstrates “a real respect for the legal system and the fundamental fairness of the legal system.”

“She’s balanced, she’s open minded,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent. “She will serve the cause of justice in America very, very well indeed.”

The ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, of Iowa, was the only senator to raise questions about Carney’s nomination, saying her lack of experience was a serious concern.

“The reason for the president’s decision to nominate her remains somewhat of a mystery,” Grassley said.

“She has never tried any case to verdict, judgment or final decision,” he noted. “Her questionnaire reveals no ligation experience in the last 15 years.”

Her work in Yale’s General Counsel’s office has focused “largely on contractual issues,” Grassley added. “It’s unclear how her position with Yale might have prepared her” for the federal bench.

Despite those concerns, Grassley said he would vote for her nomination, albeit “with little enthusiasm.” He said he wanted to “give her the benefit of the doubt.”

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., dismissed the GOP criticism, calling Carney an “extremely well-qualified woman” who has a “wealth of experience,” including 17 years in private practice where she was worked on appellate litigation.

Leahy noted that Carney garnered bipartisan support from the Judiciary Committee, which twice approved her nomination, once in the 111th Congress and again in the 112th Congress.

In the final tally, Carney snagged significant GOP support, with moderates such as Sen. Olympia Snowe, of Maine, and conservatives, such as Sen. Jon Kyl, of Arizona, voting for her. All the Senate Democrats voted in favor of her nomination; one senator, Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, did not vote.

Leahy said Tuesday’s confirmation “should have been done last year,” and was slowed by GOP stalling tactics.

Tuesday’s vote fills a seat that’s been vacant for 584 days, created in October 2009 when a sitting judge took senior status. The slot Carney will take is one of two long-standing openings on the 2nd Circuit, which has been operating under a “judicial emergency” because its roster of judges has too many cases to wade through.

Blumenthal said the court is understaffed by more than 15 percent. “The arrival of Susan Carney will help immediately to address the understaffing problem and the work burden” that has piled up as the nominations process slogged along, he said.

Carney’s confirmation comes almost exactly one year after she was first nominated by President Barack Obama. Although she didn’t encounter much Republican opposition, her candidacy still got caught up in the Senate’s usual procedural and political snags.

Filling a second Connecticut vacancy on the 2nd Circuit has proved more problematic. Obama first nominated a District Court judge in Hartford, Robert Chatigny, in February 2010. But he quickly became engulfed in controversy over his handling of the death-sentence appeals of convicted serial killer Michael Ross. Republicans said Chatigny’s conversations with attorneys in the Ross case indicated he was soft on the death penalty.

He withdrew his nomination after the 111th Congress failed to act on his name. On May 4, Obama nominated another U.S. District Judge, Christopher F. Droney of West Hartford, to that 2nd Circuit slot. The Judiciary Committee has not scheduled a confirmation hearing for Droney yet.