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Vilardo confirmed as federal judge as O’Donnell bows out

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate Monday unanimously confirmed Lawrence J. Vilardo as a federal judge in Western New York, just as Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s candidate for the area’s second judicial vacancy – former U.S. Attorney Denise O’Donnell – withdrew her candidacy for that post.

Vilardo could be sworn in to his new post as soon as this week, meaning he could start work next week.

“I am honored and grateful to President Obama for appointing me,” Vilardo said in a statement. “I also am grateful to the Senate for confirming me, and especially to Sen. Schumer for all his hard work on my behalf. But most of all, I am anxious to start working to chip away at the backlog of cases in the Western District.”

While Vilardo’s confirmation was long delayed but entirely expected, O’Donnell’s withdrawal came as a surprise.

Schumer, D-N.Y., had recommended her as the replacement for retiring Judge William M. Skretny in June 2014, two months before the senator recommended Vilardo as the replacement for retiring Judge Richard J. Arcara.

But President Obama never officially nominated O’Donnell for the post, even though he took Schumer’s suggestion and nominated Vilardo in February.

White House officials consistently refused to comment on O’Donnell’s suggestion, even to Schumer – who, in a Monday phone interview before O’Donnell announced her withdrawal, seemed frustrated by the delay.

“They don’t talk to me about this,” Schumer said. “I just bug them about it every so often.”

Later in the afternoon, though, O’Donnell issued a statement withdrawing as a candidate for the judgeship, saying her current post at the Justice Department is too important for her to leave.

“Our nation is at the threshold of transformative criminal justice reform and my work at the Bureau of Justice Assistance gives me the opportunity to lead and shape that movement,” she said. “In order to continue that work, I have decided to withdraw from consideration for appointment as a Federal District Court Judge.”

O’Donnell’s role as an Obama political appointee in the Justice Department may have made it difficult for her to win confirmation.

“Denise O’Donnell was a wonderful nominee and a great public servant,” said Schumer. “Simply put, it is extremely disappointing that such a great candidate for the federal bench was forced to remove her name due the current partisan environment in the Senate. I wish Denise all the best as she continues her work in the criminal justice system.”

Still, O’Donnell’s selection was modestly controversial from the start. Some in the Buffalo legal community complained that Schumer had selected an older candidate – O’Donnell is 68 – over younger lawyers who would presumably serve on the bench longer.

Others local lawyers said an old political fund left over from her aborted campaign for state attorney general in 2006 could have proved to be an obstacle to her candidacy. The fund currently has a balance of $300,000.

In contrast to O’Donnell, Vilardo enjoyed a relatively smooth journey through the confirmation process, winning approval in a vote of 88-0. His confirmation was delayed only because the Republicans controlling the Senate have been slow-walking the Obama administration’s judicial nominations, confirming only nine judges so far this year. In contrast, at this point in the seventh year of George W. Bush’s presidency, the Democratic-controlled Senate had approved 34 judicial appointments.

Schumer took to the Senate floor in July to push for Vilardo’s confirmation, noting that the federal judicial district based in Buffalo hears more criminal cases than the federal courts in Washington, Boston, or Cleveland, but that it had been operating without an active federal district judge.

“I am thrilled that Larry has been confirmed to serve as district judge for the Western District of New York,” said Schumer, who, as the state’s senior senator, recommends candidates for federal judgeships. “Larry Vilardo has a tremendous legal acumen, a proven commitment to serving the community and is deeply committed to Buffalo – a city where he was born, raised, educated, and raised his own family. I am confident he will be a fair and well-respected judge.”

Vilardo, 60, is the founding partner of Connors & Vilardo, LLP, a Buffalo law firm where he heads the appellate division. He is a Canisius College and Harvard Law School graduate.

News staff reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this report. email: jzremski@buffnews.com