WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to approve Toledo defense lawyer Jeffrey Helmick as a U.S. District Court judge, more than a year after he was nominated by President Obama.
He succeeds Judge James Carr, who was district judge from 1994 until 2010, when he went on senior judge status.
The 62-36 vote came after a debate in which a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee criticized Mr. Helmick over an ethics case that went to the Ohio Supreme Court and for his representation of accused terrorist Wassim Mazloum in 2009.
Those criticisms were rebutted by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) as "shallow and vacuous."
"He's only controversial in the Senate Judiciary Committee and among some of my colleagues. He's not controversial in Ohio, where they know Jeffrey Helmick the best. He's not controversial in the Toledo Bar Association. He's not controversial among federal judges in Toledo," Senator Brown said, lauding Mr. Helmick's community service and legal career.
"Jeffrey Helmick's confirmation today was long overdue. He is a skilled lawyer, an outstanding professional of the bar, and an eminently qualified nominee for the bench," Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Helmick's appointment also was supported by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio).
Mr. Helmick, 51, said the same criticisms were raised at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in March.
"It was nothing new. I'm pleased and gratified that it's over, and I'm glad I received some bipartisan support," Mr. Helmick said. He said he expects to be sworn in when President Obama issues the formal commission, which could be in a matter of days.
Mr. Helmick graduated from St. John's Jesuit High School in 1978. He went on to the University of Michigan, graduating in 1983, and worked for the law firm of Marshall & Melhorn LLC as his first job after graduation. He received his law degree from Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law in 1988 and is a principal in the law firm Gamso, Helmick & Hoolahan in Toledo.
Before starting law school, Mr. Helmick worked as an assistant to attorney Vince Nathan of Toledo, who was appointed by the federal court as a special master investigating prison systems in Georgia, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1993, Mr. Helmick was hired for two years as a consultant to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in the wake of the Lucasville prison riot.
Mr. Helmick was recommended for the U.S. District Court post in July, 2010, by a 17-member bipartisan commission. His nomination was endorsed by Mr. Brown and then-Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) in August, 2010. President Obama appointed him in May, 2011. He was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March on an 11-6 vote.
Senator Brown said Mr. Helmick's nomination was rated "well qualified" by the American Bar Association. He said the long delay, which he blamed on the Republican minority, was jeopardizing justice in the U.S. District Court of northern Ohio, and he said the delay was undermining Mr. Helmick's livelihood as a lawyer in private practice.
"The snail pace with which we've been moving threatens to delay justice for too many Americans," Senator Brown said. He said one in 10 federal judgeships is vacant and that the vacancies prompted the nonpartisan agency that runs the federal court system to declare a "judicial emergency" for Ohio's northern district.
The dissenting view of Mr. Helmick's qualifications came from Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He cited Mr. Helmick's refusal to comply with a court-ordered subpoena in 1998, which put him under a contempt of court order. The contempt citation later was lifted by the Ohio Supreme Court, but Mr. Helmick still was ordered to comply with the subpoena to turn over a document that he maintained was protected under lawyer-client privilege.
The letter was from a convicted murderer who reportedly threatened a witness in the case. Mr. Helmick read the letter to the judge, but refused a subpoena to turn over the actual document.
Mr. Grassley also said comments Mr. Helmick made at the sentencing of Wassim Mazloum in October, 2009, suggested he didn't think terrorism was as serious a crime as some others.
Mr. Grassley said the eight years that Mazloum got from Judge Carr was "hardly a punishment or deterrent."
"Mr. Helmick fails to meet the required standards and should not be confirmed," Mr. Grassley said. "I'm concerned he may believe terrorism cases are less serious than other criminal cases. And that in turn causes some concern about how he might handle terrorism cases that might come before him."
Mazloum was one of three Toledo-area men convicted by a jury of conspiring to kill or injure people, including U.S. troops, in the Middle East and of providing material support and resources to terrorists overseas.
Mr. Helmick said at the sentencing that although Mazloum at one time expressed interest in the conspiracy, his lack of involvement for many months before his arrest showed he was "drifting away" from the others, and deserved a more lenient punishment.
Mr. Grassley also insisted the pace of judicial confirmations was no worse for President Obama's nominees than it was during Republican President George W. Bush's second term, a point Mr. Brown disputed as well.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vermont) said it was to Mr. Helmick's credit that he accepted a court appointment to defend Mazloum and did so zealously, comparing him with founding father John Adams, who defended British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre.
"It really shows a misunderstanding of why we have the best legal system in the world," Mr. Leahy said of Mr. Grassley's criticism.
And he said Mr. Helmick was recognized by the Ohio Supreme Court as acting in good faith to protect his client's rights in the ethics case.
At OSU, Mr. Helmick was editor-in-chief of the Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution.
He served on the Ohio Supreme Court Commission on Continuing Education and was a member of the U.S. Attorney's Advisory Council for the Northern District of Ohio.
Described as an experienced civil litigator, Mr. Helmick was touted for writing a number of articles on settlement and litigation practices as well as for his active role in local and national bar associations.
-- Tom Troy