Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
The Senate Judiciary Committee has recommended confirmation of Pamela Harris, of Potomac, a visiting professor at Georgetown Law, to the 4th Circuit. (Photo courtesy of Brent Futrell/Georgetown Law.)
Pamela Harris, shown at Georgetown Law's Supreme Court Preview 2014, is President Obama's pick to replace Judge Andre M. Davis on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo courtesy of Brent Futrell/Georgetown Law.)

Reid acts fast to end Senate debate on Harris

4th Circuit nominee cleared panel last week; no date set for final vote

U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said he plans to hold a vote Thursday to limit debate on the confirmation of Pamela A. Harris, President Barack Obama’s controversial choice for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews Maryland federal district court decisions.

Reid, of Nevada, did not provide a date for a final Senate vote on Harris, a visiting Georgetown University Law Center professor.

Obama’s nomination of Harris, who lives in Potomac, cleared Senate Judiciary Committee last week but has drawn fire from Republicans who say she believes in an overly broad reading of the U.S. Constitution.

Reid has often called for votes to limit debate on judicial and executive branch nominees, even those that have not been strongly opposed, said Frances E. Lee, a University of Maryland professor of American politics. But with Harris, Reid might be sensing strong Republican pushback, Lee added.

Quick action on Harris might also be spurred by the specter of a Republican takeover of the Senate following the November elections, which would doom her chances of confirmation, Lee said. Obama nominated Harris to the 4th Circuit just 11 weeks ago.

“Indications are emerging that the Senate landscape is looking less favorable for Democrats,” Lee said. “They may feel that the time frame for confirming President Obama’s nominations might be truncated.”

Under an eight-month-old rule, Reid will need just a simple majority of the Senate, 51 votes, to limit debate, or “invoke cloture” in legislative parlance.

The Senate’s Democratic majority voted to change the cloture rules in November for U.S. circuit and district court nominees to speed the confirmation process — and help ensure the approval of Obama’s picks. The old rule, which still applies to U.S. Supreme Court nominees, required a supermajority of 60 votes to limit debate.

The new rule — dubbed the “nuclear option” because Democrats call it their last resort to block GOP filibusters, essentially guarantees successful cloture votes as the Democrats and their independent allies hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley voiced the GOP’s strong opposition to Harris this month when he said she has “consistently and aggressively advocated for very far out constitutional theories.”

Grassley, of Iowa, quoted Harris as having called the U.S. Constitution “a profoundly progressive document …whose meaning may change over time.”

Harris has “a judicial philosophy unmoored by the constitutional text,” said Grassley, vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a party line vote of 10-8, the Democratic-led committee last Thursday recommended that the full Senate confirm Harris to the 4th Circuit.

Harris “may be more controversial than some of the others” Obama has named to the federal bench, but the current controversy might be limited to the Judiciary Committee, said Carl W. Tobias, a University of Richmond School of Law professor who has written and lectured extensively on judicial selection.

“I expect the final vote might be close, but I think she is going to be confirmed,” said “She is highly qualified.”

Harris specialized in appellate and Supreme Court litigation at O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Washington from 1999 to 2009. From 2007 to 2009 she also co-directed Harvard Law School’s Supreme Court and Appellate Practice Clinic and was a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

In 2009, she was named executive director of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute but left in 2010 to become principal deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy. She returned to Georgetown in 2012, according to a White House biography.

If confirmed, Harris would succeed Judge André M. Davis on the Richmond, Va.-based court, which also hears appeals from U.S. District courts in Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas.

Davis took senior status in February. Obama nominated Harris on May 8.