Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Senate advances Biden pick for Pennsylvania federal court over Republican objections

The Keystone State federal district court nominee survived a partisan vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee as lawmakers assailed her credibility.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Complaints from Senate Republicans were not enough to stymie the White House’s nominee for a Pennsylvania district court, as the upper chamber’s legal affairs panel narrowly voted Thursday to send her appointment to the full Senate.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Karoline Mehalchick, tapped by the Biden administration to fill a vacancy on the Middle District of Pennsylvania, has faced intense scrutiny from the GOP since her confirmation hearing back in July. Lawmakers have argued the jurist has had her decisions reversed by higher courts on several occasions and have accused her of being overly lenient on sentencing.

Despite those gripes, Mehalchick’s nomination squeaked through the Senate Judiciary Committee on a partisan 11-10 vote, with panel chair Senator Dick Durbin casting the tiebreaker. Her appointment now heads to the Senate floor for final approval.

Prior to the vote, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham made his case against Mehalchick’s confirmation.

“I tend to vote almost unanimously for district court judges,” said Graham, who is the judiciary committee’s ranking member. “But when I don’t vote for a district judge, I think I have a good reason.”

The lawmaker called Mehalchick “one of the worst picks ever,” and said that during her time as a magistrate judge she had been “constantly” overruled.

Graham pointed to one case in Mehalchick’s record that left a particularly bitter taste in the mouths of Republicans: her 2019 decision to throw out a misdemeanor child endangerment conviction against Graham Spanier, former president of Penn State University. Spanier faced allegations that he had failed to adequately respond to the college’s 2011 sex abuse scandal involving then-assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

“This is not a person who should be promoted,” Graham said of Mehalchick. “I will vote no, and I’ll urge anybody who’s out there trying to figure out what to do on the floor to look at this case.”

In her 2019 ruling, Mehalchick concluded that Spanier had been improperly convicted under a 2007 child endangerment law because the conduct for which he was charged took place in 2001. The jurist ordered a new trial, this time instructing prosecutors to use an earlier version of the law enacted in 1995.

Mehalchick’s ruling was overturned in 2020 by the Third Circuit appeals court, and Spanier served a two-month prison sentence.

During her July confirmation hearing, Mehalchick told lawmakers she felt she had made the correct decision at the time. “The Third Circuit found that I did it incorrectly,” she said. “I would stand by what the Third Circuit said.”

Republicans have also gone after the nominee’s broader record, pointing out that Mehalchick’s rulings have been reversed by higher courts on 31 occasions. Such a figure looks worse out of context, the jurist said in July: Reversals represent less than 2% of her total body of work.

“The bulk of my work that has been appealed has been affirmed by the district court and by the Third Circuit,” Mehalchick argued.

Carl Tobias, chair of the University of Richmond School of Law, said he did not believe that Republican meddling would prevent Mehalchick from being confirmed, pointing out that Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey has been a strong advocate for the jurist and that he “enjoys cordial relationships” with Senate Republicans.

“Senator Graham may try to urge his GOP colleagues to vote no, but they lack the votes,” Tobias observed.

Meanwhile, the judiciary committee on Thursday advanced a slate of seven White House district court nominees. Tobias noted that the half-dozen advancements take steps to service Democrats’ goal of speeding up President Biden’s judicial agenda.

“The seven favorable votes on district nominees suggest that Biden and the Democratic Senate majority are beginning to expedite confirmation of Biden’s highly qualified, centrist circuit and district court nominees,” he said. “I expect that the majority will begin moving the nominees relatively soon, barring a Republican effort to shut down the government.”

The Senate committee also voted to advance the nomination of April Perry, a former U.S. attorney for Chicago tapped to become U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. As Perry’s appointment heads to the full Senate as Ohio Republican J.D. Vance has vowed to block her confirmation in protest of former President Donald Trump’s indictment by the Justice Department.

Judiciary panel chair Durbin took a potshot at Vance’s obstructionism during Thursday's meeting.

“I would urge my colleagues to find another way to protest rather than to stop the Department of Justice from keeping us safe,” the Illinois Democrat said. He noted comments made this week by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that Republicans are tougher on crime.

“Now we can see if that will happen when it comes to the appointment of U.S. attorneys,” Durbin said.

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Courts, Government, National, Politics

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.