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Toomey moves to fill 3 vacancies for federal judge

| Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, 3:11 p.m.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold confirmation hearings Dec. 9 for three people the president nominated in July as federal judges in Pittsburgh and Erie.

The committee announced the hearings shortly after Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, sent it “blue slips” showing he approved of the nominations. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, sent his blue slips shortly after the president announced the nominations.

Critics contended Toomey was delaying the process, but the senator sent his blue slips as soon as the committee finished its background investigations of the nominees, said spokeswoman E.R. Anderson. The committee wouldn't have scheduled the hearings until those investigations were done, she said.

She said Toomey “has spoken directly with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to emphasize the importance of getting these judges confirmed as soon as possible.”

Eight other judicial nominees are awaiting confirmation by the full Senate. The pace has been slow, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who studies the process.

“They've only confirmed 10 of them this year, and that's the lowest in a couple of decades,” he said.

Waiting for background checks to finish isn't the way senators typically handle blue slips, but the quick scheduling of a confirmation hearing means the nominees — U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert John Colville and Butler County Common Pleas Judge Marilyn Jean Horan — could get a full Senate vote early next year, he said.

“I think that's a positive development and, hopefully, it will move quickly after that,” Tobias said.

The committee might vote before the Christmas break, but a full Senate vote is unlikely. The process would restart in January, but it would move quickly the second time, he said.

Because the Republicans control the Senate, Toomey can make a quick vote happen, Tobias said.

Based on recommendations from Toomey and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, President Obama nominated Baxter, who serves in the Erie federal court, to fill the seat vacated when U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin resigned in August 2013 to take a private-sector job. The president nominated Colville and Horan to fill seats vacated when U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster died in April 2013 and when U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry took senior status in September 2013.

A senior judge is semi-retired but hears cases.

Horan declined to comment. The other nominees couldn't be reached.

Baxter, of Latrobe, has been a federal magistrate since 1995. She has a bachelor's degree from Penn State and a law degree from Temple University. She worked in a law firm before she became solicitor for Erie County Common Pleas Court in 1993.

Colville of Ross has been a Common Pleas judge since 2000. He has a bachelor's degree from Penn State and a law degree from Duquesne University. He began as a law clerk for former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy and worked five years in a law firm.

Horan has been a judge since 1996. She serves in the civil division but has presided over criminal and family law cases. She has a bachelor's degree from Penn State and a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She worked in a law firm for 17 years.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-325-4301.

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