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Obama nominations set up potential Senate battle over judges

Setting the stage for what is likely to be a months-long struggle with Senate Republicans, President Barack Obama on Tuesday nominated two attorneys and a judge to fill the vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – considered to be the nation’s second-most powerful court since so many federal regulations are litigated before that court.

Accusing Senate Republicans of obstructing his judicial nominees with “blatant” political maneuvers, Obama called for an up-or-down vote on the three. “The Senate is tasked with providing advice and consent,” the president said in remarks at the White House. “They can approve a president’s nominee or they can reject  president’s nominee. But they have a constitutional duty to promptly consider judicial nominees for confirmation.”

Noting that his first-term nominees overall waited three times longer to receive confirmation votes than those of former President George W. Bush, Obama said, “time and again, congressional Republicans cynically used Senate rules and procedures to delay, and even block, qualified nominees from coming to a full vote.” 

“I recognize that neither party has a perfect track record here,” Obama said but added, “what’s happening now is unprecedented.  For the good of the American people it has to stop.”

Obama’s picks for the D.C. Court of Appeals are:

  • Cornelia “Nina” Pillard, a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration who now teaches at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington;
  • Patricia Ann Millett, an appellate lawyer who has argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court. Millett served in the Justice Department for years before joining a law firm in Washington.
  • Judge Robert Wilkins, a federal trial court judge in Washington and a former public defender.

Last month, the Senate unanimously confirmed Sri Srinivasan, Obama’s nominee to the D.C. Circuit, and with eight active-duty judges, some Republicans argue the court now has enough judges to handle its workload.

In March, Caitlin Halligan, another Obama nominee to the court, withdrew after Senate Republicans blocked her from a getting a confirmation vote. The National Rifle Association opposed Halligan due to her involvement while Solicitor General for the state of New York in a lawsuit against gun manufacturers.

Prior to the Srinivasan confirmation vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “You have a majority on that court that is wreaking havoc with the country,” Reid adding that with further GOP delays perhaps the judges on that court will issue more opinions in the next couple of weeks favorable to the Republicans – as that court did in January when it ruled that Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were unconstitutional.

Commenting Monday on reports that Obama would nominate three people to fill the vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, Sen. Charles Grassley, R- Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said, “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. No matter how you slice it, the D.C. Circuit ranks last, or almost last, in nearly every category that measures workload.”