Donald Trump's election turned a lot of people's worlds upside down, and few know that better than Buffalo lawyer Kathleen M. Sweet.
It's no secret Trump is eyeing the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy but does the president-elect also have an interest in lower court judgeships and, if he does, what does that mean to Sweet's nomination to the federal bench here?
President Obama recommended Sweet, a well-known civil attorney and former Erie County Bar Association president, for appointment in March, and she made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee unopposed. But, since then, her nomination has languished.
Now, there's a potential new obstacle – an incoming Republican president.
No one, Republican or Democrat, is suggesting Sweet's nomination is dead, but local GOP leaders are wondering if the Senate, which remained Republican, will take a different view of her now that a Republican will also be in the White House.
If confirmed, Sweet would be Buffalo's first woman district court judge.
"Why would they want to expand the Obama legacy when all they have to do is kill the clock?" one local Republican Party leader said of the Senate.
Sweet, who specializes in medical malpractice cases and is a partner in Gibson, McAskill & Crosby, declined to comment on her nomination, but one of her allies suggested her appointment to the bench is long overdue.
"To start the process all over again would simply be unfair to all those seeking speedy justice in Buffalo and Western New York,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer said in a statement. "Now is the time for the Senate to do its job and promptly approve Ms. Sweet because the backlog in caseload needs to be addressed right away."
Schumer, who will take over as minority leader in the new Senate, recommended Sweet to Obama and the president eventually nominated her.
The prospects of an even longer delay in filling Buffalo's court vacancy – U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny moved to senior status in March of last year – also drew criticism from a law professor who monitors judicial selections.
"We need a full bench in Buffalo," said Carl W. Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "There's a backlog of cases."
Tobias is referring to the civil caseload in Buffalo's federal court and statistics showing it takes more than five years for the median civil case to go to trial here.
At the heart of the delay in approving Sweet, according to Tobias, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has refused to let Sweet's nomination, as well as 19 others, move forward.
"The Republicans could shut down the process," he said. "The problem is we don't know. They're not saying. At this point, they may be willing to take their chances and see who Trump offers up."
Tobias, who tracks federal judicial appointments across the country, said Sweet is a well-qualified, mainstream nominee with a reputation for fairness and integrity and should have been approved months ago.
"She's a terrific nominee and would be a tremendous asset to the court," said Chief U.S. District Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr.
Geraci, who oversees the federal court system in Buffalo and Rochester, said he hasn't spoken to Sweet or Schumer since the election, but he's optimistic the full Senate will eventually confirm Sweet.
"We're still hopeful given she's made it through the Judiciary Committee," he said.
In Schumer, Sweet has a supporter who, because of his new leadership position, may have the clout to overcome potential Republican opposition.
"When it comes to Kathleen Sweet, the verdict is clear," he said. "She has exceptional experience, an incisive legal mind, a tremendous resume, and the temperament needed to fill the U.S. Court seat in the Western District of New York, which has been vacant for too long."
Sweet is a graduate of Boston College, where she starred in basketball, and Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law. She lives in Orchard Park with her husband, Brian T. Fredericks, and their two children.
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