WASHINGTON — 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.
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
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.
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
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.”