President Barack Obama nominated three people, two women and an African-American man, to the second highest court in the land Tuesday, in an attempt to press Republican lawmakers in moving forward on filling the current vacancies.
Obama delivered an impassioned plea to GOP senators who have increasingly objected to his nominees to all courts despite bipartisan support for his selections in many cases.
"If we want to ensure a fair and functioning judiciary, our courts cannot be short-staffed," he said in the White House Rose Garden, introducing Patricia Millett, Nina Pillards and Robert Wilkins.
Millett is an appellate attorney who served in the Solicitor General's office under both Democratic and Republican presidents; Pillards was a former Justice Department lawyer and attorney for the NAACP; and Wilkins was unanimously confirmed in 2010 to serve as a U.S. District Court judge and is a former D.C. public defender, Obama said.
"These are no slouches, these are no hacks. These are incredibly accomplished lawyers by all accounts," Obama said. "There are no reasons, aside from politics, for Republicans to block these individuals from getting an up or down vote."
A previous nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, seen as a training ground for future Supreme Court nominees, was held up for two years before she withdrew herself for consideration. Most recently, Sri Srinivasan, who served in the office of the Solicitor General under President George W. Bush, was approved to the D.C. Circuit Court but after a year's delay.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday the D.C. Circuit court simply doesn't have the workload to justify the 11 judicial slots it boasts and said Obama should worry more about nominating qualified candidates for other courts.
"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 release. "No matter how you slice it, the D.C. Circuit ranks last or almost last in nearly every category that measures workload. There were nearly 200 fewer appeals filed in the D.C. Circuit in 2012 than in 2005. It's hard to imagine any reason for three more judges, no matter who nominates them."
Responding to the court-packing accusation, Obama noted that was a practice attempted by President Franklin Roosevelt to create new judgeships to then make politically supportive appointments, not filling open vacancies.
"The Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats; what I am doing today is my job," Obama said. "I need the Senate to do its job."
Russell Wheeler, president of the Governance Institute and a judicial nomination expert, said it's probably a good idea for lawmakers to evaluate judicial workloads, but doing so now smacks of partisanship.
"I don't disagree in principle that it's good for Congress to periodically to assess the workload of the courts of appeal," he says. "But the time to do that is not in the middle of a fight over judicial appointments."
Wheeler says if Congress was serious in its concerns, it should ask the judicial conference to assess the case loads and if necessary draft legislation to change the number of judges effective in the future, such as 2017, when the party of the president is unknown.
Carl Tobias, law professor at the University of Richmond, says Obama was right to chastise Republicans for their reluctance to move forward on his nominations.
"The obstruction has been unprecedented and the DC Circuit has been the prime example," he says.
Bitterness over failed Bush nominations at the hands of Democrats is driving some of the Republican motivation, Tobias says. But the problem is only getting worse, he adds.