Spokane man confirmed as U.S. district court judge

SPOKANE — Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Rice of Spokane was confirmed Tuesday by the U.S. Senate to become the next federal judge in Eastern Washington.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said Rice was approved on a 93-4 vote by a Senate that had been slow to approve President Obama’s appointees to the bench.

Rice was approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee last October, but his final confirmation vote has been held up. President Obama last June nominated Rice to become Eastern Washington’s newest federal judge.

Rice replaces U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley, who took senior status in 2009.

Rice, 51, is a Spokane native and earned his law degree in 1986 from Gonzaga University. He spent nearly 25 years as a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Washington. Since 2006, Mr. Rice has been the first assistant U.S. attorney in Spokane.

Rice’s selection was caught up in a backlog of Obama nominations that Republicans in the Senate had declined to put up for a vote. His nomination languished on the Senate floor for 134 days and the judicial seat was vacant for more than 950 days.

The American Constitution Society said about 86 of the 875 federal judgeships are currently vacant, a vacancy rate of almost 10 percent.

The Eastern District of Washington, with courthouses in Spokane, Yakima and Richland, has four judges and had 1,256 new cases filed in 2011.

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