- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama nominated a moderate Indiana judge Tuesday to serve on a Midwestern federal appeals court, his first step toward reshaping the federal judiciary and preparing for a possible Supreme Court opening.

The White House chose U.S. District Judge David Hamilton of Indiana for the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, contending Hamilton was a mainstream jurist who could overcome the bitter Senate confirmation fights of the past several years.

Obama has 15 federal appellate vacancies to fill, including the 7th Circuit court that covers Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. Since most cases do not reach the Supreme Court, the 12 geographically based federal appellate circuits often provide the last word on a variety of issues affecting Americans.

Their decisions cover, among other issues, civil rights and liberties, capital punishment, abortion, gay rights, corporate wrongdoing, review of federal regulations and treatment of detainees in terrorism cases.

Three of the appeals courts can gain a majority of Democratic-appointed judges if Obama’s nominees are confirmed for existing vacancies.

The importance of Obama’s choices increased last week when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told law students there could be an opening on the Supreme Court soon. Ginsburg, who has cancer, didn’t hint at who might be leaving. White House officials said they were preparing now for any future opening.

The White House acted before Hamilton’s nomination to make sure that his home-state Republican senator, Dick Lugar, was on board. Lugar’s office confirmed that he supports the nomination.

Conservative Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Orrin Hatch of Utah said they haven’t formed an opinion yet on Hamilton, while another GOP conservative, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said he was troubled by Hamilton’s ruling against a sectarian prayer to open the Indiana House of Representatives.

That ruling was in 2005, when Hamilton banned the practice of opening the chamber’s business with prayers mentioning Jesus Christ or using terms such as savior. He said that amounted to state endorsement of a religion. If confirmed by the Senate, Hamilton will serve on the circuit appeals court that overturned the ruling.

In 2003, he struck down part of an Indiana law on abortion. The law had required abortion clinics to give women information about alternatives to abortion in the presence of a physician or nurse, 18 hours before the procedure. The 7th Circuit court also reversed that decision.

As Obama prepares to send additional nominees to the Senate, the 4th Circuit, covering Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, has six Republican-appointed judges and five appointed by Democrats, with four vacancies.

The 4th Circuit has been one of the nation’s most conservative courts and supported the Bush administration’s policies on treatment of enemy combatants.

The 2nd Circuit, covering Vermont, New York and Connecticut, is 6-to-6 and the 3rd, covering Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the Virgin Islands, also is 6-to-6.

Lugar’s support for Hamilton would make it difficult for Republicans to filibuster his nomination, because Democrats would only need two GOP senators to stop the delaying tactic. Attorney General Eric Holder and two top deputies had opposition from Republican conservatives, but they easily won Senate confirmation with significant Republican backing.

The American Bar Association, resuming its historical role in evaluating judicial nominees, gave Hamilton a “well qualified” rating. During the Bush administration, the ABA was not consulted about judicial selections.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama will look for nominees with “the ability to empathize and walk in someone’s shoes.”

Hamilton has ruled on issues ranging from pornography to corporate misdeeds. He:

_Upheld an Indianapolis ordinance requiring parental consent for children to have access to video games with extreme violence, or explicit sexual content. The video game industry had challenged the law.

_Held white-collar criminals accountable for corporate wrongdoing. He sentenced a former credit union head teller who embezzled $7 million to eight years and one month in prison, and ordered restitution. He sentenced a former real estate executive, who had written $217 in bad checks, to 6 1/2 years in prison.

_Sentenced a child pornographer to 100 years in prison, a penalty upheld by the 7th Circuit.

_Admitted into a case a surveillance video of drug defendants, even though the police did not have a warrant. The police did, however, have permission from a person with access to the room.

_Struck down a state provision requiring sex offenders to provide authorities with personal information.

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