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Federal judicial nomination hearing draws crowd

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The Senate Judiciary Committee considered U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton's nomination for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals at a Wednesday afternoon hearing. A second hearing might be possible, and committee members likely won't vote on the Indianapolis judge's appointment to the appellate bench for at least another month.

The hearing for the Southern District of Indiana jurist was conducted about 2:30 p.m. at the U.S. Capitol building. It was moved from the usual building a couple blocks away because senators wanted to be closer to the Senate floor in order to vote on a series of federal budget bill items being debated at the same time, according to Erica Chabot, press secretary for committee chair Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt.

Normally, the hearing would have been broadcast live online, but the relocation meant going to a room without cameras.

The room, which was smaller than the usual location and had limited seating, was packed with people standing wall-to-wall, said Charles Bruess, the judge's recently retired courtroom deputy of almost a decade who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the hearing

"It was interesting to be there and see how the process works, but I didn't come away with a good feeling because it was all very confusing," he said. "The disappointing thing to me is that this last minute effort to postpone it doesn't take into consideration regular people who traveled a long way to be there or had planned to watch this online."

The hearing began on time and Leahy made his introductions, and then immediately the leading committee members were able to speak in order of seniority, Bruess said. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said lawmakers weren't given enough time to prepare for the hearing - echoing a concern he's voiced since the hearing was first scheduled a week ago. Specter praised Judge Hamilton's academic and judicial records and said he doesn't necessarily disagree with any of the judge's decisions, but he said more time was needed to review the record, which includes 1,150 written opinions - and 9,500 pages - from the judge's tenure on the bench.

Specter, who left the hearing after his 10-minute statement, urged Judge Hamilton to consider volunteering for a second hearing. Such a hearing would be rare, and it hasn't been determined if one might happen, according to Chabot. Leahy and the administration have said they're moving quickly in order to foster a bipartisan spirit and set a tone different from the past, when judicial nominations were delayed and took much longer.

President Barack Obama nominated Judge Hamilton for the post March 17, and this hearing was set about a week later. This is one step in the overall confirmation process, and the judge would still need confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate. If confirmed, he would replace Judge Kenneth Ripple who took senior status in September 2008.

Judge Hamilton began his opening remarks about 3:10 p.m. after an introduction from Indiana's senators, Republican Dick Lugar and Democrat Evan Bayh, the latter being the legislator who'd recommended the judge for the seat.

The full hearing lasted until about 4:15 p.m. and included consideration of two other nominees, one assistant attorney general nominee and a drug control policy director prospect. Senators asked all three questions simultaneously, making it difficult to distinguish exactly how long each testified for.

Those at the hearing said that in his first 15 minutes, Judge Hamilton answered questions about specific cases he's handled during his 14 years on the bench and talked about how he would recuse himself from cases, if necessary.

Judge Hamilton spoke about at least three cases, including his Henrichs v. Bosma decision in 2005 involving legislative prayer, his Doe v. Prosecutors case in 2008 involving search and seizures of sex offender computers and residences, and his past string of decisions involving Indiana's informed-consent for abortion laws.

A transcript of the hearing will be published once it's completed, Chabot said.

The most current coverage of the nomination process can be found at the Indiana Lawyer Web site, and an in-depth story on Judge Hamilton can be found in the April 1-14, 2009, issue of Indiana Lawyer.

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