President Barack Obama pauses during remarks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Virginia, February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Barack Obama pauses during remarks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Virginia, February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Barack Obama pauses during remarks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Virginia, February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

by Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – When President Obama announced his nominees to fill vacancies at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, everyone watching knew that he was in for a fight.

A report published in March by the Alliance for Justice, an organization that promotes progressive values and the creation of an equitable, just, and free society, found that judicial vacancies under President Obama have increased by 58 percent. During the Clinton administration, those vacancies decreased by 51 percent. Judicial vacancies decreased by 13 percent at a similar point during President Bush’s second term.

“This confirmation discrepancy is largely due to the comparatively harsh treatment of the president‘s district court nominees. While the Senate confirmed 96% of President Bush‘s district court nominees at this point in his presidency, it has confirmed only 83% of President Obama‘s nominees,” stated the report.

Court experts say that the president’s bold announcement in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by his nominees for the D.C. Circuit court, sends a clear signal that he’s going to take an aggressive stance in getting those nominees confirmed.

“What he’s trying to show is that the White House is in a process of finding the finest and the best candidates for these positions. He’s making it that important,” said John Page, president of the National Bar Association, an advocacy group and network of Black lawyers and judges. “It was a clarion call for senators to do their jobs. It was a signal that the American public is tired of the obstruction.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has been called the “second-most important court in the United States” because of the importance of the cases it hears.

“The D.C. Circuit decides cases that affect almost every aspect of our lives,” said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice. “From the water we drink, to the air we breathe, to whether women and people of color get equal pay, to challenging discriminatory actions by employers.”

According to the Alliance for Justice, “under its Republican-appointed majority, the D.C. Circuit has become hostile to consumer, worker, health, and environmental protections.”

In 2012, the court ruled against Environmental Protection Agency policies that sought to restrict air pollution that crossed state lines. That same year the court struck down FDA cigarette warning label guidelines, “citing the First Amendment rights of cigarette companies.”

In 2013, the court nullified President Obama’s three recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that protects workers’ rights.

Republican presidents appointed 15 of the last 19 D.C. circuit judges and five of six senior judges who are “semi-retired,” but still sit on panels that hear important cases, were appointed by Republican presidents.

“Republican appointees still control the federal judiciary,” stated the Alliance for Justice report.

That reign may be coming to an end.

“Since the end of the Bush Administration, the percentage of Republican-appointed circuit court judges dropped from 61.3% to 51.2%, and the percentage of Republican-appointed district court judges dropped from 58.6% to 52.6%,” the Alliance for Justice report said.

Aron said that Republicans have had a plan going back decades to leave an ideological imprint on the federal judiciary.

“[Republicans] have sought to put judges on the bench who would turn the clock back on civil and women’s rights, individual liberties and consumer and environmental rights by pushing the appointment of judges during republican administrations and blocking the appointment of judges during democratic administrations,” said Aron.

President Obama’s first nominee to the D.C. Circuit court, Caitlin Halligan was filibustered twice by Senate Republicans and eventually bowed out for consideration for the bench. President Obama’s second nomination, Sri Srinivasan, who served as the principal deputy to the Solicitor General of the United States and argued 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court was confirmed in May 2013.

Currently, there are four judges appointed by Republican presidential administrations and four judges appointed by Democratic presidential administrations.

“Right now, we’re at a tipping point which is why Republicans are putting up such a fight,” said Aron.

Republicans are not only fighting against the president’s attempts to fill vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit, but some say they are attempting to squeeze the pipeline to the United States Supreme Court. Many court watchers also view the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit as a stepping-stone to the Supreme Court.

“Those judges on the circuit are really a farm team for the Supreme Court,” said Aron. “Four of the current justices on the [Supreme Court] came from the D.C. Circuit.”

Four of the nine Supreme Court justices – Ruth Bader Ginsburg,  Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts – all served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for being elevated to the High Court.

Alliance for Justice reported that President Obama “has appointed the highest percentage of women (41%) and minorities (36%) in history.”

If his three nominees to the D.C. Circuit are confirmed, those numbers will improve more. President Obama nominated Cornelia Pillard, a Georgetown University Law Center professor, Patricia Millett, an appellate lawyer, and Robert Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. District Court.

Wilkins, the lone African American nominee, worked at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia from 1990 to 2002 and also served on the presidential commission for the Smithsonian Institution‘s National Museum of African American History and Culture during President George W. Bush’s administration.

As a young lawyer, Wilkins shined a national spotlight on the “driving while Black” phenomenon, suing the state of Maryland for racial profiling in 1992.

Wilkins and his family were pulled over by a Maryland State police officer. His cousin, Scott El-Amin, who was driving the rented car, was cited for speeding. When the trooper requested to search the car, they refused, but were forced to wait in the rain during a canine search of their vehicle anyway.

Experts agree that experiences like these help U.S. appeals court judges relate to the plaintiffs in the cases that they hear.

Court watchers and lawyers groups have applauded President Obama’s efforts to fill the vacant seats on the court, while promoting diversity in gender, race and experience.

Page said that the obstruction of the president’s nominees needs to stop.

Page added: “These candidates are highly qualified under every circumstance.”