On a Monday last month, the residents of a village in southern India organized special prayers for an American judge nearly 9,000 miles away. The federal judge’s father was born in the village, called Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram, and now the son had surfaced as a possible justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It is a proud moment for all of us,” said one resident, according to the Hindu newspaper.
Such pride reflects the attention now focused on Sri Srinivasan, 49, a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit who is a leading candidate in President Obama’s search to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, according to people familiar with the deliberations. If he were chosen, Srinivasan, born in India and raised in Kansas, would become the first Asian American nominated to the high court.
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In Washington and across the country, this potential has mobilized a broad coalition of Asian-Pacific American organizations, whose leaders regard Srinivasan’s inclusion on the president’s shortlist as a sign that the Asian American community has come of age in the nation’s legal establishment.
“We think that this is our time,” said Christopher Kang, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans. Kang worked in the White House for six years, helping to shepherd Obama’s past two Supreme Court nominees through their Senate confirmations and later handling judicial nominations in the Office of the White House Counsel.
Kang, along with other leaders of Asian American legal, business and civil rights groups, is urging White House officials at least to have an Asian American among the final candidates granted interviews with Obama. “What we are saying is, give us fair consideration,” said Tina Matsuoka, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
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Srinivasan is one of the three final candidates the president is considering, according to several people familiar with the White House’s vetting process.
The coalition’s members make the case that this is the first time in U.S. history that a significant number of Asian Americans occupy positions that allow them to become qualified for the nation’s highest court — a result of a strategy by Obama to diversify the federal judiciary.
On the appellate courts, the most common steppingstones to the Supreme Court, Obama has appointed four Asian American judges, including Srinivasan — more than all previous presidents combined, Kang noted. When the current administration began in 2009, no active circuit judge was Asian American, and the last such appointee had been by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
During the first six years of his presidency, Obama appointed 20 Asian Americans to various tiers of federal courts — part of a pattern in which he has been reshaping the judiciary’s composition, according to a recent demographic analysis of judicial appointments by three political scientists. Obama named the nation’s first female Native American federal judge and 11 openly gay judges. Slightly more than 2 in 5 of his judicial appointees were women, and 1 in 10 were Hispanic — far higher proportions than under earlier presidents. About 1 in 5 have been African American.
The president has a record of seeking out “firsts” in his judicial and other personnel appointments. Such novelty can take different forms, said Sheldon Goldman, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a co-author of the analysis. Another judge being considered for the Supreme Court vacancy, Jane L. Kelly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, would be the first justice who had a career as a public defender. With Srinivasan, Goldman said, “his ethnic identity would be the real novel factor here.”
Srinivasan has spoken publicly about the evolution of Asian Americans in the law and in mainstream culture. In November 2013, he was the keynote speaker at the gala dinner of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s 25th annual convention, where he was greeted with a sustained standing ovation.
The convention was in Missouri, and Srinivasan riffed on the state’s abbreviation — Mo. — with the convention’s theme: momentum. He ticked off the increasing ranks of Asian Americans who are law professors, lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court, state solicitors general — and judges. “We have come a long way . . . to a time when, particularly of late, Asian-Pacific Americans are leaders at the pinnacle of the profession,” he said. This transformation, he said, is “the immigrant dream come to fruition.”
Srinivasan epitomizes the dream he described. Six weeks before his speech, he was sworn in as a judge on the D.C. Circuit in a ceremony with hundreds of guests, including the wife of the prime minister of India, a friend of his parents.
His father, T.P. Srinivasan, a mathematics professor, led his young family to the United States. Srinivasan has visited his father’s native village just once, in 2000.
The future judge first came to the United States as a baby when his father had a Fulbright fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley. His family returned to India, then emigrated when he was 4 to the American heartland — Lawrence, Kan. His father was on the mathematics faculty at the University of Kansas, and his mother taught art history and, later, computer science. Srinivasan played basketball in high school and remains a Kansas Jayhawks nut.
In an election year that has contained flashes of nativism, some of Srinivasan’s allies worry that if Obama chose him, he might foster criticism of a nominee with a foreign name and a conflation of his religion, Hinduism, with anti-Muslim sentiments.
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Leading conservatives who focus on judicial nominations say that, if Srinivasan were nominated, their focus would be on his record, not his ethnicity or origins. But Curt Levey, executive director of FreedomWorks Foundation, said that, until Obama names his choice, conservatives will mainly work to bolster Senate Republicans’ argument that no nominee should be considered during the president’s final year.
To the extent that the White House weighs the nomination’s impact on the November election, Asian Americans are a small niche of voters but growing quickly. Over the past two decades, they have migrated from primarily supporting GOP presidential candidates to voting for Obama by a large majority — 73 percent — in 2012. Young Asian Americans, in particular, tend to be liberal, recent surveys have found.
For the Asian American electorate, “this is a real test to see whether they step up, if Sri Srinivasan were nominated,” said Vincent Eng, a Washington-based consultant who works on judicial nominations with Asian American organizations.
Matsuoka, of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said that, no matter whom Obama selects this time, there also is “a long-range game. We know there are going to be opportunities. . . . There will be vacancies.”
“Why shouldn’t we have an [Asian American] Supreme Court justice?” said Lorna Ho Randlett, founder and co-chair of the Leader’s Forum, a business and civic leadership group for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “If they’re qualified, and on the shortlist and ready to go, if not now, when?”
Julie Tate and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.