WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee indefinitely postponed this week’s scheduled hearing for a federal circuit court nominee, after complaints from Maryland officials that the seat should not go to a Virginian.
Claude Allen of Virginia was nominated by President Bush in April to fill the seat on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals left vacant by the 2000 death of Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr., who was from Baltimore.
But Maryland Democratic Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski said in a letter to the White House that the nomination ran contrary to the administration’s stated goal of making the bench proportional to the population of the states in the circuit.
Maryland currently has two of the 15 seats in the 4th Circuit, which also includes Virginia, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina. The open seat has traditionally been allocated to Maryland, the senators said, and losing it would end up under-representing the state on the court.
Because of the opposition from Maryland, committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, decided to put off a hearing scheduled Wednesday for Allen and two other federal judge nominees.
“The chairman wanted to discuss the 4th Circuit Court seat nomination,” with Sarbanes and Mikulski, said Judiciary Committee spokeswoman Margarita Tapia.
The Maryland State Bar Association also opposed the nomination, and sent a letter to the president in June raising the same concerns as Sarbanes and Mikulski.
“Our position had nothing to do with Mr. Allen’s qualifications,” said James Nolan, immediate past president of the Maryland bar. He said the White House is not under any legal obligation to nominate a Maryland lawyer for the seat, but the bar association wanted Bush to follow precedent.
Not everyone is convinced Maryland has a claim to the seat.
“I think geography plays a role in the makeup of a court, but I don’t think that’s the only consideration,” said Breck Arrington, executive vice president of the Virginia Bar Association.
“Qualification is the most important thing to consider,” he said, adding that in his personal view, Allen is a “very respectable candidate.”
Allen is deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and he previously served as secretary of the Virginia Department of Health and Human Services under former Gov. Jim Gilmore. Allen also worked in the Virginia Attorney General’s office, where he became the deputy attorney general for the civil litigation division.
But a Maryland Bar Association spokeswoman said it is important to fill the court vacancy with a Marylander, since “a Maryland judge is familiar with Maryland law.”
“We think a Maryland lawyer should represent our district,” said Janet Stidman Eveleth, the spokeswoman.
Mikulski this week asked Hatch for a chance to testify before the committee, in a letter that made it clear that her stand on the issue has not changed since she and Sarbanes first raised the issue this summer.
“As you know, both Senator Sarbanes and I are very much opposed to the Allen nomination, and have asked that the Judiciary Committee not proceed with the nomination,” she wrote.
The committee has not scheduled a new date for the hearing. Allen could not be reached Thursday to comment on the delay in his confirmation hearing.