By NEDRA PICKLER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is simultaneously naming three nominees to the understaffed federal appeals court in Washington, setting up an aggressive push against Senate Republicans who are trying to keep him from naming any more judges to the influential circuit.
A White House official said late Monday that Obama planned to announce his nomination of Patricia Ann Millett, Cornelia Pillard and Robert Leon Wilkins on Tuesday in the Rose Garden, a joint announcement that is part of an aggressive new push in a years-long partisan fight to make his imprint on the court. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to discuss the nominees on the record ahead of the announcement.
Pillard is a Georgetown University law professor, Millet is an appeals lawyer in Washington, and Wilkins is a judge on the U.S. District Court in Washington. They would fill three vacancies currently on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, often called the second-highest court in the nation because of its influence.
The court has nationwide and even international impact, since many cases relate to the balance of power in Washington and review of actions by federal agencies that affect health, safety and the environment. The D.C. circuit also is grooming grounds for the Supreme Court, with four current justices having served on it.
The nominees might not raise partisan rancor on their own – Millet worked in the George W. Bush administration, while Wilkins was confirmed without opposition in Obama's first term. But the D.C. Circuit is at the center of a struggle between Obama and Senate Republicans.
Congress has authorized 11 judgeships for the D.C. circuit, but Republicans are questioning whether the court is busy enough to justify filling the seats. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation to eliminate one seat, move one to the 11th circuit based in Atlanta and move another to the 2nd Circuit based in New York. He says the workloads in those two circuits are much heavier than in Washington.
That legislation is a non-starter in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but signals that Republicans are going to fight Obama's nominees. "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," Grassley said in a statement Monday night.
The White House has objected sharply to Grassley's legislation and noted that Republicans voted to fill those vacancies when President George W. Bush made the nominations.
The White House has been frustrated by the successful blocking of one of Obama's nominees to the circuit and by key decisions there recently against Obama's agenda. The circuit overturned an administration regulation clamping down on power plant pollution that crosses state lines, rejected its attempt to require large, graphic health warnings on cigarette packages and found that Obama exceeded his power in bypassing the Senate to make recess appointments.
Although Obama also has gotten some victories from the D.C. circuit, which upheld his health care law and his administration's rule on greenhouse gas emissions, he was stymied in his attempts to add his own nominees to its bench until two weeks ago. Obama's first offering, Caitlin Halligan, waited 2-1/2 years before withdrawing her nomination in March, with Republicans blocking a vote on her confirmation. Obama's second nominee – Sri Srinivasan, who had bipartisan credentials after arguing appeals for both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations – won confirmation May 23.
With Srinivasan's confirmation, the circuit now has four Democratic appointees and four Republican appointees among the active judges. But another six senior judges on semi-retired status regularly hear cases, and five of those were nominated by Republican presidents.
Obama's three new nominees – two white women and a black man – contribute to a White House commitment to bring diversity to the federal bench historically dominated by white men. But the nominees don't bring much in the way of academic diversity; all three are graduates of Obama's alma mater, Harvard Law School.
Pillard is an experienced Supreme Court litigator who worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund before joining the solicitor general's office in 1994. She left to join the faculty at Georgetown in 1997, but returned for two years at the Justice Department at the end of the Clinton administration. She still appears before the Supreme Court from her position at Georgetown.
Millet worked with Pillard in the solicitor general's office beginning in 1996, but stayed through most of the Bush administration before leaving in 2007 to join private practice. Millet has argued cases in nearly every federal appeals court and appeared 32 times before the Supreme Court, the second-highest number of high court appearances of any female attorney. She's currently a partner at the Washington firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where she heads the firm's Supreme Court practice.
Wilkins has been a federal judge since 2010, when the Senate approved Obama's nomination of him to the U.S. District Court in Washington. He was a public defender in Washington before helping to establish the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and then going to work for nine years in private practice.