Obama calls on Senate to quickly confirm three judicial nominees

Judges at this appeals court face confirmation hurdles that are tougher, in some ways, than actual Supreme Court justices. Now President Obama has a plan to finally fill the vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

A confrontational President Obama provoked a fresh skirmish with Senate Republicans on Tuesday by nominating three lawyers to fill longtime vacancies on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Obama, visibly exasperated, upbraided Senate Republicans for playing “games” that he said wrongly delayed votes on past nominees, and challenged them to swiftly confirm his three new choices.

He made his pitch at a rare formal ceremony in the Rose Garden, part of an ambitious bid to reshape the federal judiciary in his second term.

“This is not about principled opposition; this is about political obstruction,” Obama said. “I recognize that neither party has a perfect track record here. Democrats weren’t completely blameless when I was in the Senate. But what’s happening now is unprecedented. For the good of the American people, it has to stop.”

Obama nominated two female lawyers, Patricia A. Millett and Cornelia T.L. Pillard, and an African American federal judge, Robert L. Wilkins, to the D.C. Circuit. The three are part of a broader push by the president to diversify the federal bench in his second term and leave a legacy of a court system that more closely resembles the society it serves.

Tuesday’s announcement was a significant departure for a president often criticized in his first term for not expending political capital on judicial nominations and allowing vacancies on federal courts to languish.

Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron, who was critical of Obama’s first-term approach, said in a statement Tuesday, “We commend him for sending a bold, public signal that these nominees are a top priority.”

Aides say Obama has grown increasingly troubled by Republican efforts to block his judicial nominees, who have frequently been left hanging for months or, in some cases, years. The case of New York City prosecutor Caitlin Halligan, whose 2010 nomination to the D.C. Circuit was blocked by Senate Republicans for more than two years, was particularly unfair, Obama said Tuesday.

“It had nothing to do with Caitlin’s qualifications,” he said. “It was all about politics. And after two-and-a-half years of languishing in limbo, this brilliant and principled lawyer asked me to withdraw her nomination.”

It is unusual for any president to nominate a trio of judges for the same court at the same time. Tuesday was also the first time Obama used a Rose Garden ceremony — typically reserved for Supreme Court or major Cabinet nominees — to announce his selections for an appellate court.

The announcement was in part an attempt to highlight the large number of vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, which rules on critical domestic policies and is considered the nation’s second-most influential court behind the Supreme Court.

In May, the Senate confirmed former Justice Department official Sri Srinivasan, an Obama nominee to the D.C. Circuit, in a unanimous vote. But three of the court’s 11 seats remain vacant.

Obama is trying to put a more liberal bent on the D.C. Circuit, which before Srinivasan’s confirmation had four Republican and three Democratic appointees. The court has been a persistent obstacle for the Obama administration, blocking proposed environmental rules and putting holds on dozens of labor cases.

Key Senate Republicans have signaled that the new nominees will face stiff resistance in their confirmation battles, in part because Republicans do not believe the court’s caseload is heavy enough to demand that each position be filled.

“It’s hard to imagine the rationale for nominating three judges at once for this court given the many vacant emergency seats across the country, unless your goal is to pack the court to advance a certain policy agenda,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement Monday.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), another panel member, said the nominations were “nothing more than a political ploy to advance a partisan agenda.”

Obama rejected such criticism Tuesday, saying that those who suggest he is “court-packing” do not know their history. He noted that the term dates to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who tried to add seats to the Supreme Court to help advance his political agenda.

Of the D.C. Circuit, Obama said, “I didn’t create these seats. I didn’t just wake up some day and say, ‘Let’s add three seats to the District’s Court of Appeals.’ These are open seats, and the Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats. What I’m doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.”

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