Using the Rose Garden as his backdrop and arranging to stand beside his choices for the Washington federal appeals court were two clear symbolic signals from President Barack Obama today that he’s making victory in the judicial wars a top-tier objective for the year.
Top Republicans are making just as clear a commitment to their side of the fight, meaning the threat of a Senate “nuclear” showdown will grow in the months ahead.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned this morning that any assertive, outside-the-normal process to change the rules and do away with judicial filibusters would poison whatever small measure of good will is left in the Senate. It would make it essentially impossible for him to trust anything Majority Leader Harry Reid says in the future.
McConnell did not say so explicitly, but it seems no doubt that Republicans plan to block the nominees Obama put forward. And the president made clear he knows what to expect.
“What I’m doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job,” he said. “I recognize that neither party has a perfect track record here,” he added, but “what’s happening now is unprecedented. For the good of the American people it has to stop.”
The president had never before appeared in front of the cameras with a judicial nominee, except when he unveiled his two Supreme Court picks. But this morning he staged a full-fledged televised photo op to tout the worthiness of the pair of top female appellate lawyers and the African-American trial court judge he’s picked to take the three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s the second-most-powerful bench in the country because it’s called on so often to affirm or limit federal regulations and ratify or strike down national security and constitutional decisions.
The three are:
- Patricia Ann Millett, who has argued more than 30 cases before the Supreme Court as a partner at Akin Gump. She’s been a civil appeals litigator at the Justice Department and an assistant to the solicitor general.
- Nina Pillard, a law professor at Georgetown who argued nine cases before the high court as an assistant solicitor general in the Clinton administration.
- Robert L. Wilkins, a federal public defender and partner at Venable before he was confirmed by voice vote in 2010 for a judgeship at the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
The decision to nominate them as a quasi-slate was designed to have several benefits. It’s supposed to signal a readiness to fight to the liberal base of the party, which had been bemoaning with increased volume that the president isn’t spending enough political capital putting his stamp on the courts. And it’s designed to make it more difficult for the GOP to mount simultaneous filibusters against all of the nominees, especially because their credentials on the surface look unimpeachable (and Millett served in the Bush administration.)
The strategy seems to be working as intended. Progressive groups hailed the nominees, while Republicans ignored their individual qualifications altogether while lamenting that Obama was launching a “court-packing” effort similar to FDR’s. (The difference is that the incumbent is trying to shift the ideological balance by filling existing D.C. Circuit seats, while Roosevelt wanted to expanded the size of the Supreme Court to get more New Dealers on board.)
“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,” said Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It’s hard to imagine any reason for three more judges, no matter who nominates them.”
Grassley and all seven other GOP members of Judiciary are backing legislation to eliminate the three vacant chairs on the D.C Circuit altogether, suggesting the level of resistance the party will put up against Obama’s slate.
Their willingness to confirm Sri Srinivasan to the court just before the Memorial Day recess, the first vacancy filled there in seven years, looks to be the last moment of bipartisan comity on the judicial front for months to come. With gun control and immigration off its plate, fighting over the workload and ideological balance of the D.C. Circuit is Senate Judiciary’s main work for the summer.
Seventeen progressive groups have been asked to the White House on Wednesday to get their marching orders for lobbying on behalf of the president’s judicial slate — another sign of the intensity of the conflict ahead.