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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 ccasteel@opubco.com Published: September 12, 2011
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The Oklahomans and the White House have yet to agree on a U.S. attorney nominee for the federal district based in Tulsa or a U.S. marshal in the district based in Muskogee.

Boren, of Muskogee, said he wasn't optimistic that any of the seats could be filled until after the 2012 presidential election.

“There's been a slow pipeline throughout this administration,” Boren said. “There are a number of factors that can slow the process down.”

In an interview, Turpen said Coburn asked him for some recommendations for the 10th circuit seat so he could research their backgrounds and possibly reach an accord with the White House on a potential nominee for the post.

Turpen, a former Oklahoma attorney general who is now a state regent for higher education, said he wrote Coburn a letter stressing that he wanted Levit for the job but included six other names.

Three of the people he suggested now work as federal prosecutors in Oklahoma: Suzanne Mitchell, Joel-Lyn McCormick and Scott Williams. Two are attorneys in private practice: Lisa Riggs, of Tulsa, and Miles Tolbert, of Oklahoma City. Tolbert was former Gov. Brad Henry's secretary of the environment. Turpen also suggested Robert E. Bacharach, a federal magistrate judge in Oklahoma City.

Turpen said he wasn't convinced Coburn wanted to get the job filled before the next election.

“I'm taking (Coburn) at his word” that he wants to find someone, Turpen said. “But he knows I'm a little bit cynical.”

Coburn also declined to comment on Turpen's remarks.

A three-year vacancy?

If the process stalls until after the next presidential inauguration, it's likely that the 10th circuit post won't be filled until mid-2013 at the earliest, meaning it would have been vacant for three years.

Before Levit was vetted for the job, there were reports that the White House would nominate Keith Harper, an American Indian attorney who was part of the legal team representing Indian trust account holders in their long-running lawsuit against the federal government.

All of the Oklahomans involved reacted angrily to the reports, since Harper, although a Cherokee, is not an Oklahoman. He never was nominated.

According to Oklahoma attorneys with knowledge of the Levit situation, Levit was strongly supported by Rep. Dan Boren. Levit's husband, Ken, was an aide to University of Oklahoma President David Boren when Boren was in the U.S. Senate.

Dan Boren declined to comment specifically about Levit, saying only that members of the delegation work together to find candidates on which they can all agree.

Regarding the 10th circuit nomination, Jared Young, Inhofe's spokesman, said: “We are continuing to work within the delegation to reach a consensus on a nominee that can make it through the Senate confirmation process and also receive the Obama administration's approval.

“It has been a disservice to Oklahomans to have this vacancy open for so long, largely because of a broken process that has operated outside of the normal process for nominations of this nature.”