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Madison lawyer James Peterson will fill a long-vacant federal judge position after the U.S. Senate confirmed him for the job on Thursday.

The Senate voted 70-24 to make Peterson the next judge in U.S. District Court for the Madison-based Western District of Wisconsin, with both Wisconsin senators in favor.

“I was really thrilled about the opportunity, and it’s a great relief to be through the confirmation process,” Peterson said Thursday.

President Barack Obama nominated Peterson in November to fill the seat once held by U.S. District Judge John Shabaz, who went on medical leave in 2008 and never returned to the bench. Shabaz died in 2012.

Obama’s first pick for the job, former state Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, was twice nominated to replace Shabaz but never reached a floor vote in the Senate.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said the Senate rejected Butler not because of his qualifications, but rather because he was seen as “too liberal for Republicans.”

Peterson, however, had support from both of his home state senators, Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republican Ron Johnson, Tobias said. Peterson was one of three lawyers a nominating commission set up by Baldwin and Johnson recommended to Obama.

He leads the Intellectual Property Litigation Working Group at the Madison law firm Godfrey & Kahn and is a graduate of the UW-Madison law school, where he also teaches copyright law.

Peterson said he plans to start the job in the next couple of weeks.

Going without a full slate of judges has put a strain on the Western District court, officials said. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb retired from her position four years ago, but decided to stay on the bench to help manage the district’s caseload.

“They’re glad to have just about anybody on the bench to fill a long-standing vacancy,” Peterson said of his future colleagues.

Peterson’s confirmation vote was a lopsided one, but closer than votes for two other federal judges who were confirmed unanimously on Thursday.

The vote split the GOP caucus, Tobias said, with all 24 nay votes coming from Republicans. Questions during Peterson’s confirmation hearing about his work representing the Freedom from Religion Foundation may have led some of the Republican members to vote against him, Tobias said.


Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.