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Senate approves Obama nominee to key appeals court

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a break from bipartisan battles over judicial appointments, the U.S. Senate on Thursday approved a White House nominee to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The Senate voted 97-0 to confirm Sri Srinivasan, 46, a top deputy in the Justice Department's Office of the Solicitor General, which represents the United States in appeals courts and before the Supreme Court.

Born in India and raised in Kansas, Srinivasan will be the first South Asian to serve on a federal court of appeals.

In a statement, President Barack Obama described Srinivasan as a "trailblazer who personifies the best of America."

Srinivasan will fill one of four vacancies on the 11-member appeals court, often described as the second-most important court in the United States because it rules on many major regulatory issues and hears other high-profile cases.

The ease of Srinivasan's confirmation, coupled with his stellar resume, has fed speculation that he could be a future high-court nominee for Obama - or a future Democratic president.

But Republican senators who backed the nomination have made it clear that they would not be so welcoming toward other Obama nominees to the court. Once Srinivasan joins, the court's eight active judges will be will be equally divided between Democratic and Republican appointees

OBAMA'S NOMINATION STRUGGLES

Obama has had fewer judicial nominees confirmed at this stage of his presidency than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.

Obama is hoping to shape the makeup of the Washington appeals court, having until Thursday failed so far to add a single judge to this bench, despite the current vacancies.

Republicans though argue that the court does not hear enough cases to warrant 11 judgeships.

Srinivasan's warm reception among Republicans has been in stark contrast to Obama's only other nominee to the court so far, New York lawyer Caitlin Halligan, who withdrew from consideration in March. Republicans twice blocked a confirmation vote for Halligan after raising concerns about what they decried as her activism as a lawyer for the state of New York.

Srinivasan has pro-business as well as bipartisan credentials. He clerked for Republican-appointed judges, worked in the Justice Department during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush, and represented corporations in private practice. He has argued more 25 cases before the Supreme Court.

In his current job as deputy to Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, he appeared before the Supreme Court in March when the justices weighed the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which limits the definition of marriage under federal law to opposite-sex couples. The U.S. government has urged the court to strike down the law.

In remarks on the Senate floor prior to the vote, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, described Srinivasan as "supremely qualified." The committee approved the nomination unanimously last week.

After graduating from Stanford Law School, Srinivasan clerked for two jurists appointed by President Ronald Reagan: J. Harvie Wilkinson of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Richmond, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

He then spent more than a decade moving between corporate law firm O'Melveny & Myers and the Justice Department. From 2002 to 2007, during the Bush administration, he was a career lawyer in the Solicitor General's Office.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Amy Stevens and David Brunnstrom)

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