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Senate confirms Columbia S.C. lawyer as federal judge

The Senate easily confirmed Columbia attorney Mary Geiger Lewis as a federal district judge Monday evening in a rare bipartisan victory for President Obama.

Lewis, 53, picked up 14 Republican senators, among them Sen. Lindsey Graham, in the 64-27 confirmation vote. Sen. Jim DeMint was among 27 GOP senators who opposed her.

House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, had recommended Lewis to Obama. Graham, of Seneca, was the only Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to back her when the panel approved the nomination in March.

“All I can say is I’m very appreciative to Congressman Clyburn and obviously the president for nominating me, and I’m so happy I had the support of Sen. Graham,” Lewis told McClatchy after the vote. “It’s a bipartisan result, and I’m very happy with that.”

Lewis, who holds an undergraduate degree from Clemson and a law degree from USC, is a partner with her husband, Camden, at the Hampton Street firm Lewis & Babcock.

Graham said Lewis is well-liked by other S.C. lawyers and judges, Democrats and Republicans alike.

“She has strong bipartisan support in South Carolina’s legal community,” Graham said. “I’m pleased that she has now been confirmed by the Senate.”

DeMint, who voted last fall to confirm two Obama judicial nominees from the state, said he opposed Lewis to protest the president’s recess appointments last winter of four executive nominees who’d faced widespread GOP opposition.

Lewis becomes the fifth South Carolinian nominated by Obama and confirmed by the Senate for the federal bench, but the first woman.

All five female Republican senators, who often split on key votes, backed Lewis: Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, both of Maine.

Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro, N.C., Democrat, also supported Lewis. Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, opposed her. Nine senators – six Republicans and three Democrats, didn’t vote.

Lewis is fresh off a major legal victory. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in April overturned a $44 million judgment against her client, Tuomey Hospital in Sumter, in a whistleblower case.

A federal jury in 2010 cleared the hospital of charges that it had inflated Medicare reimbursements to doctors but found it guilty of giving physicians kickbacks in exchange for referrals. That verdict was overturned on appeal.

S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia defense attorney, said he worked with Lewis when he was a prosecutor and as a lawyer on civil cases.

“She’s had criminal and civil experience, and she’s demonstrated that she’s one of the best lawyers in the state,” Harpootlian said. “I think she’s going to be an extraordinary judge. She’s got the temperament and the intelligence to do it.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said Lewis received more support from Republican senators than he’d expected in a confirmation vote that came 15 months after Obama nominated her.

“It was never clear why her confirmation process took so long or why there was GOP opposition,” Tobias said. “In the end, I think that Sen. Graham’s strong support and her strong qualifications as a longtime litigator were important to her appointment.”

Tobias said Obama’s success in getting all five judicial picks from South Carolina through the Senate reflects the influence of Graham and Clyburn.

Obama’s federal appellate nominees from Georgia and Wisconsin have been stymied by Republican senators in those states, Tobias said.

The previous four Obama judicial nominees who received Senate confirmation were U.S. District Judges Richard Gergel of Columbia, who now sits in Charleston; Michelle Childs of Columbia, who sits in Spartanburg; Timothy Cain of Westminster, who sits in Greenville, and 4th Circuit Judge Henry Floyd of Pickens, who sits in Richmond, Va.