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Senate Judiciary Committee OKs Sinatra as federal judge in WNY

WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday approved Buffalo lawyer John L. Sinatra Jr.'s nomination to be a federal judge in Buffalo, sending it on to the Senate floor for a final vote.

The panel, without debate, sent Sinatra's nomination to the full Senate by a vote of 16 to 5.

All five senators who voted no are Democrats. Opposing Sinatra's nomination were Richard Durbin of Illinois, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

While the senators at Thursday's meeting did not explain why they voted against Sinatra, the senators who opposed it were among those who have been most critical of President Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, as well as many of his other judicial nominees.

One Democrat who questioned Sinatra sharply at his Aug. 1 confirmation hearing, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, voted for Sinatra Thursday.

And one who opposed Sinatra – Blumenthal – had kind things to say about him and other Trump nominees for federal district courts at an earlier hearing.

"I greatly respect all of your records, your professional qualifications," Blumenthal said at that Aug. 1 hearing.

Coons had raised questions at the earlier hearing about Sinatra's brother, Buffalo developer Nick Sinatra, and his real estate investments with Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican.

"Mr. Sinatra, it's been reported Rep. Collins has significant investments in your brother's real estate ventures and that you've got a close friendship and that you've supported him in previous campaigns," Coons said at that Aug. 1 hearing. "Given those relationships, would you recuse yourself from any matter that might arise that would involve the congressman were you to be a judge in the relevant district?"

That prompted Sinatra to reply: "Senator Coons, I certainly would look seriously at that and think hard about it under the recusal statutes as they apply to a situation like that."

That exchange came a week before federal prosecutors in Manhattan indicted Collins on felony insider trading charges, which are unrelated to his real estate investments with Nick Sinatra.

The questions at the hearing stemmed from the fact that, according to federal records, Collins invested between $3.5 million and $13 million in Nick Sinatra's real estate ventures since 2014. Collins also loaned Nick Sinatra's company at least $1 million.

At Collins' behest, President Trump nominated Sinatra, a civil litigator at Buffalo's Hodgson Russ law firm, for the judicial opening in May.

The nomination capped an odd four-year saga that started when U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny decided to move to senior status.

With Democrat Barack Obama in the White House, Sen. Charles E. Schumer – a Democrat and the state's senior senator – pushed former U.S. Attorney Denise O'Donnell for the vacancy. But the Obama White House refused to move her nomination out of concerns about her age – she was 67 at the time – and her deep political connections.

In 2016, Schumer pushed – and Obama nominated – Buffalo attorney Kathleen Sweet for the vacancy. While the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the nomination, Senate Republicans stalled instead of confirming Sweet.

Then Trump, a Republican, won the presidency that fall, upending Democratic judicial nominations such as Sweet's and prompting Collins to start pushing Sinatra for the judgeship. Schumer then agreed to Sinatra's nomination, as did Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, also a New York Democrat.

The full Senate now must vote on Sinatra's nomination, although it is unclear when that will happen.

But the vote will probably take place before the Senate adjourns for the campaign season in October, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who pays close attention to the judicial confirmation process.

It's likely that Sinatra's nomination will be packaged with others from New York State and dealt with by voice vote, given the Senate's recent practice on such nominations, Tobias said.

"He'll probably get a number of no votes from the Democrats, but he should be fine," Tobias said.

Given that the court in Buffalo has both a longstanding vacancy and a long case backload, "everybody knows Buffalo needs that judgeship," Tobias added.

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