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Photo by DANIEL ERATH -- World Trade Center, July 20, 2016 -- Wendy and Senator David Vitter

Daniel Erath

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy has submitted three names to the White House for a vacant federal judgeship in New Orleans, including that of Wendy Vitter, the wife of his former Senate colleague, David Vitter, according to an email obtained by The Advocate.

The other two are Thomas Flanagan, a longtime attorney in New Orleans, and Jay Wilkinson, a federal magistrate judge.

Of the three, Wendy Vitter is easily the best known and potentially the most controversial, given the potential appearance of a quid pro quo. David Vitter played a key role in getting Cassidy elected to the Senate three years ago. 

David Vitter is now a lawyer in private practice and a lobbyist. He chose not to seek re-election to the Senate in 2016, a year after losing the governor’s race to John Bel Edwards. Prior to that race, he had a long career as a member of the state House, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

Federal judgeships, which are lifetime appointments, are highly coveted among attorneys. At stake is a district court judgeship in Louisiana’s Eastern District, one of three federal judicial districts in the state. Of the 15 judgeships in the New Orleans-based court, two are vacant.

The White House generally makes nominations for federal judgeships and U.S. attorneys based on recommendations from the state’s two senators. Cassidy and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, who was elected to the seat Vitter vacated, have split up the open seats, which each taking the lead on about half of them.

“As ultimately the decision is up to the president, we will withhold further comment until the White House makes a formal announcement,” Cassidy’s office said in a statement, declining to answer questions.

Kennedy also declined to comment, instead issuing a statement saying: “As previously reported by The Advocate, Sen. Cassidy is taking the lead on some federal nominations, and Sen. Kennedy is taking the lead on others. We can confirm that Sen. Cassidy is taking the lead on the most recent nomination for the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, and it is our understanding that Sen. Cassidy has submitted names to the White House to fill that vacancy.”

Cassidy has created a panel of influential citizens to vet potential judgeship candidates. The panel is led by his brother, David, a partner with Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson, which has offices in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

David Cassidy confirmed that the panel interviewed Flanagan, Vitter and Wilkinson, among others.

“The committee does not choose whose name is submitted,” David Cassidy said. “That is entirely up to the senators.”

Once the White House announces the final selection, he or she would have to win approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee and then the full Senate.

Wendy Vitter, a Tulane Law School graduate, has been the general counsel for the Archdiocese of New Orleans since 2012. Her courtroom experience came years ago — from 1984-92 — when she worked for Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., first as a law clerk and later as an assistant district attorney. During part of that time, she served as chief of felony trials and prosecuted more than 100 jury trials, specializing in homicide cases.

“The most important thing I thought I could ever do was to be a voice for victims who could not speak for themselves,” she once said.

Wendy Vitter also served as the campaign manager for her husband’s three elections to the U.S. House and assisted his two victorious Senate campaigns.

Her resumé lists as references New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond; U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, a close Vitter friend and former Vitter campaign official; and Connick.

Cassidy would certainly have reason to want to reward Wendy Vitter, whose husband, Republican Party sources said, has been pushing for his wife’s appointment.

David Vitter was the architect and engineer of Cassidy’s 2014 election to the Senate. He lent a top aide to run Cassidy’s campaign, and Cassidy hewed closely to Vitter’s political playbook by repeatedly tying his Democratic opponent, in this case Sen. Mary Landrieu, to President Barack Obama.

“Sen. David Vitter and Wendy helped us from the very beginning,” Cassidy told jubilant supporters on the night of his victory.

Flanagan, who was first in his class at Tulane Law School, has his own law firm. He is on the executive committee of the New Orleans chapter of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, an important gathering place for politically ambitious conservative attorneys. He clerked for John Minor Wisdom, a revered federal judge who died in 1999 and for whom the federal appeals court building in New Orleans is named.

Wilkinson, also a Tulane Law School graduate, signs search warrants and handles arraignments and other lesser duties as a federal magistrate judge. He was a law clerk to Morey Sear, a federal judge who died in 2004. He also spent two years as a reporter in the late 1970s working for The Times-Picayune.

Editor's note: This story was changed on Oct. 5 to clarify that Wendy Vitter worked first as a clerk and later as a prosecutor for Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.