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White House Laments GOP’s Mikkanen Rejection

WASHINGTON – The White House is expressing disappointment by a Republican-led senatorial rejection of President Barack Obama’s nomination of Kiowa tribal citizen Arvo Mikkanen to be a federal judge in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

A White House official noted that Senate Republicans were the driving force behind sending the nomination back on December 17, making it clear that they would not move forward. The official said that the Obama administration is “obviously disappointed” by this action, which appears to be unjustly politically motivated.

There are currently 19 judicial nominees pending on the Senate floor, 16 of whom passed the Senate Judicial Committee unanimously without a single Republican dissent, yet there has still not been a vote by the full Senate to confirm them, largely due to GOP stall practices. By tradition of the Senate, single senators hold large amounts of power in slowing down the confirmation process, even when their political party is not in control.

It was opposition from Oklahoma Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe, both GOP members, who jointly played a key role in blocking Mikkanen, currently an assistant U.S. attorney in Oklahoma City. They would not allow his nomination to be heard by the full Judicial Committee, and they have not concretely said why.

Coburn has only said publicly that Mikkanen was unacceptable without offering clarification, and both senators have complained that they were not consulted prior to the nod.

Adding weight to the mystery, an editorial in the Okahoman newspaper suggests that Mikkanen's background is similar to that of federal appeals court Judge Jerome Holmes, whose 2006 nomination to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was supported by both senators. Plus, Holmes had no prior experience as a judge, while Mikkanen does.

Under Senate procedure, home state senators to nominees are charged with granting the Judiciary Committee permission to move forward on considering a nomination, and both Coburn and Inhofe would not do this.

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The maneuver is a major loss to Indian country. If he would have been confirmed by the Senate, Mikkanen would have been the only American Indian to currently serve on the federal bench, out of a total of 875 federal judgeships. He also would have been only the third Native American in history to secure a federal judgeship.

Indian legal experts have long said that tribal law gets shortchanged in the federal legal arena because so few judges are well-versed and experienced in it. This is one reason why federal cases are often harmful to tribal and Indian interests, according to many tribal analyses.

By most accounts, Mikkanen was more than qualified for the position. The American Bar Association had granted him a unanimous rating of “qualified” after Obama nominated him in February.

In his 16 years as assistant U.S. attorney, Mikkanen has overseen criminal and civil cases, with much experience devoted to Indian country. He has served as a trial and appellate judge for Court of Indian Offenses and Court of Indian Appeals for the Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Wichita, Caddo, Delaware, Fort Sill Apache, Ponca, Pawnee, Kaw, Otoe-Missouria, and Tonkawa Tribes. From 1991 to 1994, he served as the chief justice of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Supreme Court.

Many in Indian country, including the National Congress of American Indians, had commended Obama’s nomination, and now many are shocked and angry.

“Assistant U.S. Attorney Mikkanen has served our country for many years as a federal prosecutor, and with his vast experience in both federal and tribal law, he is an excellent choice for the Federal District Court in Northern Oklahoma,” Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI, said upon his nomination.

Eight other judicial nominees were returned to the White House on December 17.