Obama makes his mark on the appeals courts

When George W. Bush left the White House in 2009, the 13 federal appeals courts were firmly under the control of judges appointed by Republican presidents. GOP-appointed judges were a majority in 10 of the circuits, one was evenly split, and only two had Democratic-appointed majorities.

President Obama’s 49 appellate appointees have dramatically altered the landscape. As of the Senate’s recess last Friday, nine of those courts had Democratic-appointed majorities and four remained in the GOP column. (There are 10 vacancies in the circuit courts. One Obama nominee is awaiting a Senate vote, and three are pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

The change, much feared by Republicans, is not necessarily shocking. But the transformation, in just 51 / 2 years, marks “a huge shift in a very short period of time,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor Arthur Hellman, an authority on the appellate courts.

And it means that Democratic-appointed judges “have the ability to control every important case if they wish to” in those nine circuits, he said.

That’s important because those courts are often the courts of last resort, he said, since the Supreme Court rules in only about 75 cases a year and has not weighed in on many issues, including those of import to business or the First Amendment rights of students expressing themselves online. The appeals courts, in contrast, issue thousands of opinions a year.

Until the high court speaks, he said, “the law that counts is the law of the circuit.”

What’s your poison?

Every politician needs a niche issue. Sen. Chuck Schumer ­(D-N.Y.) seems to have laid claim to bizarre alcohol trends.

When New York Magazine’s food blog posted a week ago about a new frozen-alcohol delivery service sweeping social media, Schumer swooped in and demanded that it be regulated, or else stopped.

The private Instagram account selling “Phrosties,” the sugary, high-alcohol, colorful slushies that arrive on your doorstep in plastic bottles, has gone dark. It could be the wrath of Schumer, or it could also be because the New York State Liquor Authority had started an investigation.

Because it was an underground, bootleg operation, Schumer warned that children could order one of the beverages online and “get it and enjoy it because it’s filled with fruit juice and fruit punch and all the things that taste sweet and nice,” he said at a news conference in New York on Monday.

New York Magazine reminds us that Schumer was also instrumental in getting Four Loko drinks banned. Remember the caffeine-and-malt-liquor concoction that all the kids were drinking in that 2010 craze?

And earlier this month, Schumer made the case against a powdered alcohol product, Palcohol. There’s an entire Web site extolling the benefits — you can take it camping, it’s less weight on airplanes — of powdered booze. But Schumer argued that powdered alcohol could too easily be slipped into people’s drinks or snorted like cocaine. Palcohol, for its part, says putting the stuff up your nose would be very painful.

Schumer is completely hamstrung on issues such as unemployment insurance and immigration reform, so it’s good that the No. 3 Senate Democrat has found an issue that might be changeable — under his influence.

The cutest namesake

Rounding out a list that includes a parasite, a spider and a fungus, the president now has an adorable white tiger cub named for him.

The other examples, like the trapdoor spider Aptostichus barackobamai, are newly discovered species that will live on forever with Obama’s name attached to them.

So the decision to name a baby tiger after Obama isn’t exactly the same thing — it’s not so different from your neighbor naming his dog or hamster Obama. But these tigers are an endangered species, which makes them special. And they’re ridiculously adorable.

Five cubs were born at the White Zoo in Kernhof, Austria, several weeks ago. The four females were named Lali, Lela, Lila and Lula. The fifth, a male, was named Obama.

The zoo owner, Herbert Eder, in an e-mail to the Loop, gave an explanation in halting English.

“This little fellow is similar walking as your President of the United States and he has the same smiley face. And Obama is looking very intelligent with wonderful steel blue eyes. We hope, that Mr. Barack Obama is not angry, when we have now a second Obama in Austria. We like him and it is lovely sign of respect to your President. We would be very happy, if Mr. President would hear about that and maybe he send us greetings from the White House. If not, . . . when he is maybe visiting Austria in the future, our guest of honour in the White Zoo Austria flying by Air Force One to meet Obama no. 2!!”

Quote of the week

Secretary of State John Kerry was amused Wednesday morning during an interview on the “Today” show when asked about Edward Snowden’s assertion about his current living situation.

In an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams that aired Tuesday night, Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, said the United States had “trapped” him in Moscow.

“So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, ‘Please ask the State Department,’ ” Snowden told Williams.

Kerry chuckled when “Today” host Savannah Guthrie told him Snowden blamed the U.S. government for his new life in Russia. She asked whether Snowden had a point.

Though we’re only halfway through the week, Kerry’s response earned him the Loop Quote of the Week crown.

“For a supposedly smart guy, that’s a pretty dumb answer, frankly,” Kerry said. “If Mr. Snowden wants to come back to the United States today, we’ll have him on a flight today. We’d be delighted for him to come back.”

— With Colby Itkowitz

The blog: washingtonpost.com/intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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