Obama to Republicans: Don't block my judges
President Obama nominated three top lawyers to the D.C. Circuit, the nation's second most important court. The move signals a willingness to spend political capital on his legal legacy.
(Page 2 of 2)
Cornelia “Nina” T.L. Pillard is a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington. She has served twice in the Justice Department and was an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Obama cited as “landmark successes” her defense before the Supreme Court of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the opening of the Virginia Military Institute to female students.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Robert Leon Wilkins, who is African-American, is a judge on the federal D.C. District Court, confirmed without opposition in 2010. Before that, Judge Wilkins spent eight years in private practice, and a decade as a public defender in Washington, D.C.
One aspect of his nominees that shows no diversity is their common legal alma mater. Like Obama, they are all graduates of Harvard Law School.
Last month, Obama won the first confirmation of a judge to the D.C. Circuit of his presidency, when Sri Srinivasan was approved 97 to 0 by the Senate. In his remarks Tuesday, Obama pointed to “mounting public pressure” and “vocal bipartisan support” as helping Judge Srinivasan win confirmation. But he also noted the experience of another D.C. Circuit nominee, Caitlin Halligan, who faced multiple filibusters over 2-1/2 years and eventually withdrew in March.
The D.C. Circuit holds a special place in the pantheon of federal appellate courts, as it hears cases of national and international significance. The court considers the constitutionality of federal regulations and the actions of federal agencies, and is often the last word in cases, since most do not reach the US Supreme Court. The D.C. Circuit is also a steppingstone to the high court.
But Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants to shrink the D.C. Circuit, saying its caseload does not justify 11 seats. He has introduced legislation that would shift two of the court’s seats to other circuits and eliminate one seat altogether.
Obama laughed with exasperation at the claim that he is trying to “pack the court.”
“We're not adding seats here,” he said. “We're trying to fill seats that are already existing.”
With the addition of Srinivasan, the D.C. Circuit now has four Democratic appointees and four Republican appointees, but among the court’s six “senior judges” – formerly full-time judges who still hear cases – five are Republican appointees. So for both parties, the current vacancies have clear political import.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has suggested he may move this summer to change the rules on filibusters – from a requirement of 60 votes to end debate to a simple majority – on judicial and executive branch nominations. Such a move, known as the “nuclear option,” would add an explosive new level of partisan angst to the Washington scene.