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Sen. Tom Coburn blocked attempt to fill federal appeals court vacancy, Oklahoma attorneys say

The Democratic White House is struggling to find federal nominees that satisfy Oklahoma's conservative senators.
BY CHRIS CASTEEL Published: September 12, 2011

— Sen. Tom Coburn shot down the impending nomination of the dean of the University of Tulsa law school for the vacant seat on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to Oklahoma attorneys who said Coburn was concerned about Janet Levit's background in international law.

Oklahoma City attorney Mike Turpen, a longtime Democratic Party fundraiser with ties to the White House, said Coburn told him in July that Levit was not going to receive his backing, effectively killing any chance that she could get through the U.S. Senate.

According to Turpen and other attorneys familiar with the situation, Levit's nomination was close to being finalized. White House visitor logs show Levit met twice in October with a White House official overseeing judicial nominations.

Levit is a Yale Law School graduate with a distinguished resume that includes serving as a clerk for the former chief judge of the 10th circuit court and arguing cases before the court. She has been dean of the University of Tulsa College of Law since 2008.

Levit's academic specialty is international law, and she is a member of the American Society of International Law.

Focus of questioning

Coburn, a member of the Senate committee that oversees judicial nominations, has been adamant that U.S. judges never look to international law to decide cases.

It was a major focus of his questioning of Supreme Court nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor; he was particularly critical of Kagan for making a course in international law mandatory when she was dean of the Harvard Law School.

And he routinely asks nominees for lower courts whether they would ever consider international law in their decisions.

Coburn and Levit declined to comment for this story.

The 10th circuit position has been vacant since July 2010 when Robert Henry resigned to become president of Oklahoma City University. The appeals court is a step below the U.S. Supreme Court and hears cases from Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.

Finding nominees

The situation with Levit demonstrates how difficult it has been to find nominees for federal seats who are acceptable to the White House, Oklahoma's two Republican senators and Rep. Dan Boren, the lone Democrat in the state's congressional delegation.

Before leaving office this year, former Gov. Brad Henry, who, like President Barack Obama, is a Democrat, was also a factor in submitting recommendations to the White House, though there was apparently little, if any, coordination with Boren and the senators.

In February, after Henry's recommendation, Obama nominated federal prosecutor Arvo Mikkanen for a vacant U.S. judgeship in Tulsa, but Coburn, R-Muskogee, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, have blocked action on that nomination.

Coburn and Inhofe have complained that they weren't consulted by the White House about Mikkanen's nomination.

Coburn also has called Mikkanen unacceptable for the job but has declined to elaborate.

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