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Nominee for federal court seat is in limbo

Toledo lawyer’s name tied up in U.S. Senate


Toledo attorney Jeffrey Helmick has the support of Sen. Sherrod Brown

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Nearly two years after Judge James Carr announced his retirement from U.S. District Court in Toledo and nearly eight months after his successor was nominated by President Obama, the federal courthouse on Spielbusch Avenue is still waiting for its newest judge.

Toledo lawyer Jeffrey Helmick has undergone a statewide selection process, a federal review, and interviews with the American Bar Association. But the state’s recommendation and the President’s pick for the Toledo court’s next federal judge remains stuck in the process.

A bipartisan state commission headed by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown recommended Mr. Helmick for the bench. “It’s not really Jeff Helmick personally, I think. [Former Republican U.S. Sen.] George Voinovich signed off on him. [U.S. Sen.] Rob Portman (R., Ohio) signed off on him, finally,” Senator Brown, a Democrat, added. “This should be able to move. I think we will get a hearing early [this] year. Then I hope he’s confirmed quickly after that.”

President Obama nominated Mr. Helmick as the next federal judge for the Northern District of Ohio on May 11. Since then, Mr. Helmick was labeled by the American Bar Association as “well qualified,” which is the organization’s highest recommendation.

But his name is among nominees that remain in limbo. The Senate Judiciary Committee adjourned for 2011 without scheduling a hearing for Mr. Helmick and, according to the office of Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the committee’s ranking Republican, the committee’s schedule for this year has not been set. The committee is to return to session Jan. 23.

The senator’s office did not respond to questions about whether the process has been held up and why.

Mr. Helmick declined to comment on the process but said he remains grateful to be a nominee for the federal bench.

“To be nominated by the President of the United States to be a federal judge is the greatest honor of my professional life, and I hope to have a hearing soon before the Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said.

Mr. Helmick, 51, of Toledo is a graduate of Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law and is a principal in the law firm Gamso, Helmick & Hoolahan in Toledo. He graduated from St. John’s Jesuit High School in 1978 and the University of Michigan and worked for the law firm of Marshall & Melhorn LLC as his first job after graduation.

Prior to his name crossing the President’s desk, Mr. Helmick, a registered Democrat, was screened by a 17-member bipartisan commission in Ohio created by senators Brown and Voinovich, who has since retired.

Since Mr. Helmick’s recommendation by Ohio’s senators in August, 2010, Senator Portman has replaced Senator Voinivich in Washington. Senator Portman’s office said the senator did “sign off” on Mr. Helmick’s nomination, allowing it to progress to the Judiciary Committee.

That hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Although several nominees are awaiting the scheduling of a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, several others are stuck just a bit further down the road.

According to numbers provided by the White House, 21 judicial nominees are through committee but have not yet been brought before the full Senate.

All but two were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan support, and 16 had no opposition at all in committee.

Almost half of the nominations would fill seats in what is known as “judicial emergencies,” which do not include Toledo.

In one district, the vacancy was created in 2004.

The Senate adjourned for the year Dec. 17 without acting on any of the nominations.

The vacancy in Toledo’s federal court was announced in January, 2010, when Judge Carr, the former chief judge for the U.S. District Court’s Northern Division, sent a letter to President Obama announcing he intended to retire from active service and take on the role of a senior judge.

He said at the time he wanted to give this President the chance to fill the position.

Also on senior status in the Toledo courthouse is Judge David Katz. A senior judge can continue to receive a full case load or have a somewhat reduced case load.

The federal court in Toledo has one active judge and two judges on senior status.

With the appointment of a new judge, it will have four judges.

The time required for a judicial candidate to get through the process and take the bench varies and often is affected by the political climate, said Lee Strang, a law professor at the University of Toledo College of Law.

“I do think that politics is certainly playing a role in the time it takes to nominate and confirm judges today, more than it ever has,” Mr. Strang said. “If federal judges do all the things that they now do, like make decisions on issues such as abortion and [school] busing, then people of different political views are going to care a lot about the views of the judges.”

Mr. Strang noted that it is difficult to compare the progression of a nominee to that of others who came before him.

However, the numbers reveal that Mr. Helmick so far has waited longer than other Toledo nominees.

Judge Carr was nominated by President Bill Clinton on Jan. 27, 1994, and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on May 6 of that year.

Judge Katz was nominated by President Clinton on Aug. 12, 1994, and confirmed Oct. 7, 1994.

Both judges were recommended by their home state senators to the president on May 6, 1993.

The court’s only full-time seated judge — Judge Jack Zouhary — was nominated by President George W. Bush on Dec. 15, 2005, and was confirmed by the Senate on March 17, 2006.

“District court judges make important decisions,” Mr. Strang added.

“And the key, I think, is that both sides realize that the district court judges are the farm team for the higher courts, namely a Supreme Court nominee.”

Staff writer Tom Troy contributed to this report.

Contact Erica Blake at: or 419-213-2134.

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