WASHINGTON - The Senate confirmed one of President Barack Obama's key judicial nominees today, completing an overhaul of the country's second most powerful court into one dominated by Democratic-appointed judges.
The Senate voted 55-43 to confirm Robert Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That gives Democratic appointees a 7-4 majority on the politically influential bench. The D.C. Circuit, second in clout only to the Supreme Court, hears appeals of White House actions and federal rules and regulations.
Wilkins' confirmation is a fresh demonstration of Senate Democrats' ability to push through most presidential nominations by a simple majority, thanks to a weakening of filibusters that they muscled through the chamber in November.
It came on the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments about a constitutional provision relating to temporary presidential appointments. At issue is Obama's use of the provision to make so-called recess appointments, which presidents can make without Senate approval.
Obama applauded the confirmation of Wilkins, who was previously approved unanimously by the Senate for a district judgeship. Obama said Wilkins would bring important perspective to the D.C. Circuit.
"He has applied the law with the utmost impartiality and integrity," Obama said in a statement. "I am confident that he will continue to do so on the D.C. Circuit."
Republicans' resistance to many Obama nominees, including judges, prompted Democrats to change years of Senate filibuster tradition. Instead of requiring 60 votes to move nominations forward, the Senate can advance almost all presidential nominees on a simple majority vote. The only exceptions are nominees to the Supreme Court.
The change virtually assured Wilkins' confirmation. In a just over a month, the Senate has confirmed two other Obama nominees to the court, Patricia Millett and Cornelia "Nina" Pillard.
Republicans again criticized the rules changes today, though they said little about Wilkins' credentials.