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John L. Sinatra's federal judge nomination hits another speed bump

WASHINGTON — It's now taken longer to fill the vacant federal judgeship in Buffalo than it typically takes students to get a law degree, and the wait to fill the slot of U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny now looks like it might go on a bit longer still.

President Trump nominated Buffalo attorney John L. Sinatra Jr. to the post in May, but the Senate never acted on his nomination or those of 69 other federal judicial appointments last year.

That meant Trump had to renominate those prospective judges so the newly elected Senate could consider their nominations this year. And late Tuesday, Trump did just that, submitting 51 nominations to the Senate.

But Sinatra's wasn't one of them — meaning those other 51 prospective judges will be in line in front of him.

The White House offered no explanation as to why it withheld renominating Sinatra on Tuesday, but sources in Washington and Buffalo said there's no sign the Trump administration has any sudden qualms about the Sinatra nomination.

"Last night’s announcement was only the first pass of presidential re-nominations for judicial candidates," Jennifer Brown, a spokeswoman for Rep. Chris Collins, said Wednesday. "We expect John Sinatra to be re-nominated soon, especially based on his bipartisan support for Senate approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee last September."

Collins, a Republican from Clarence, pushed for Sinatra's nomination, and the state's senior U.S. senator — Democratic Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer — signed off on it last May.

Sinatra, a Republican, won praise from Buffalo lawyers affiliated with both political parties last year, but at a hearing last summer, Democrats questioned Sinatra over the fact that his brother, Buffalo developer Nick Sinatra, is Collins' partner on several real estate ventures.

Rep. Chris Collins pushes business partner's brother for federal judgeship

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sinatra's nomination by a 16-5 vote Aug. 1 — a week before federal prosecutors in New York charged Collins with fraud and conspiracy in connection with an alleged insider-trading scheme.

Collins has denied those charges and vowed to fight them in court, and sources with knowledge of the Sinatra nomination in Washington and Buffalo said there is no sign that Collins' indictment will have any bearing on the nomination.

Instead, this week's delay seems to be just one more surprise speed bump on the rocky road to filling the vacancy created when Skretny opted to move to senior status in 2014.

In June of that year, Schumer recommended that President Obama nominate former U.S. attorney Denise O'Donnell for Skretny's seat. But Obama refused to do so, prompting O'Donnell to withdraw her nomination in October 2015.

Schumer then recommended – and Obama nominated – Buffalo attorney Kathleen M. Sweet for the position. But the Senate adjourned at the end of 2016 without acting on her nomination.

How Schumer tried – and failed – to get a woman on Buffalo's bench

That meant the new president — Trump, a Republican — got to nominate someone else for the slot. But Sinatra's nomination and those 69 others got waylaid at the end of the year when Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, could not agree on a way to consider them before the end of the 115th Congress.

Court-watchers had expected Trump to renominate all 70 of those judicial candidates together, and couldn't speculate as to why the White House would wait on the Sinatra nomination and 18 others.

"It's a head-scratcher, what happened," said former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of Clarence, a Republican who is close to former White House Counsel Donald McGahn and who was consulted before Trump nominated Sinatra.

Former U.S. attorney Dennis C. Vacco, also a Republican, agreed.

"Frankly, it's startling to me," he said, noting that renominations are usually routine in such circumstances.

Vacco noted that the Western District of New York has a heavy caseload, and that a long-term judicial vacancy makes matters worse.

Proof can found in federal judicial caseload statistics. For the year ending March 31, the median amount of time that it took to resolve civil cases in the Western District was 11.7 months — the longest such interval in the state. In Manhattan's Southern District, in contrast, civil cases took an average of 6.7 months to resolve.

Meanwhile, the remaining judges in New York's Western District faced a growing backlog of criminal cases. Some 392 criminal cases were filed in the district, which includes Buffalo and Rochester, in the year ending March 31, 2018. That's a 24.4 percent increase from the previous year.

Not surprisingly, the chief judge in the Western District, Frank P. Geraci Jr. of Rochester, wants the vacant judgeship to be filled as soon as possible.

"Not having that additional judge certainly gets in the way of providing justice in the community," Geraci said.

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