The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The D.C. Circuit is the court at the center of the filibuster fight. Here’s why it matters.

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Now that Senate Democrats have abolished the filibuster for federal judge nominees and executive-office appointments, they are expected to confirm President Obama's three picks for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And that could have a big policy impact in the coming years.

The D.C. Circuit is surprisingly powerful — not least because it rules on decisions made by federal administrative agencies. If people want to challenge various federal regulations in court, the cases often end up here. It's "a court with special responsibility to review legal challenges to the conduct of the national government," explained Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who served on the D.C. Circuit court until 2005.

The court is likely to oversee crucial cases on environmental and financial regulation in the years ahead. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the process of issuing rules to regulate carbon emissions from new and existing coal- and gas-fired power plants. This is a crucial plank in President Obama's climate-change agenda. And any challenges to those rules could end up in the D.C. Circuit court.

The same goes for the future of financial regulation. Key parts of the Dodd-Frank law are still being crafted by various agencies, and those regulations often appear before court. Last year, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission tried to establish "position limits" to reduce the risk that banks can take on, only to get struck down by the D.C. Circuit.

The court currently has eight full-time judges out of 11 possible seats. Half of those judges were appointed by Democratic presidents, half appointed by Republican presidents. There's a twist though — any overflow in caseloads tends to get handled by six "senior" judges who work part-time. And five of those senior judges were appointed by Republicans.

That's about to change. Obama has made one nomination so far — Sri Srinivasan, who was confirmed earlier this year. Now the president is expected to get three more nominees confirmed, which could sway the ideological make-up of the court. (Cases before the appeals court are often heard by three-judge panels.)

You can find fairly thorough biographies of Obama's three nominees here, but here's a brief rundown:

-- Patricia Ann Millett: A partner at Akin Gump and former assistant solicitor general during the Clinton and Bush administrations, she's argued more than 30 cases before the Supreme Court. Fellow Supreme Court lawyer Tom Goldstein called her “completely objective and non-ideological in a way that should make even Republicans smile.” But she's also clearly a Democrat, having donated $52,600 to the party in the 2008 and 2012 elections.

As a bonus, you can see her speak favorably about Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' decision to uphold Obamacare here.

-- Nina Pillard: A Georgetown professor who specializes in gender discrimination and workplace issues. She famously argued a case that opened the Virginia Military Institute to women and, in 2003, successfully defended an aspect of the Family Medical Leave Act before the Supreme Court. (Some Republicans had taken issue with Pillard's views connecting reproductive rights with gender equality.)

-- Robert L. Wilkins: A current District Court judge in Washington who was confirmed by the Senate on a voice vote in 2010. He's a former public defender who famously (and successfully) sued the Maryland State Police after being pulled over by state troopers. That case launched a number of class-action lawsuits over racial profiling in the state.

D.C. Circuit nominees have often been subjected to heated battles — in part because the court is widely viewed as a steppingstone to the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans tried three times to nominate John Roberts to the court before he finally got confirmed in 2003. Before she joined the Supreme Court, Justice Elena Kagan was nominated for the D.C. Circuit court in 1999 but never confirmed.