President Obama on Tuesday announced three nominees to fill vacancies on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, raising the stakes for a high-profile Senate showdown with potentially huge consequences for his second term.
The nominees are attorney Patricia Ann Millett, Georgetown law professor Cornelia Pillard and U.S. District Court Judge Robert Leon Wilkins. Millett and Pillard have litigated cases before the Supreme Court. Wilkins was confirmed in 2010 without any opposition.
“These are no slouches. These are no hacks,” Obama said, standing beside his three nominees in the White House Rose Garden. “These are incredibly accomplished lawyers.”
The move forces Republicans to decide whether to filibuster these nominees. Top GOP senators have signaled that they don’t want to fill any of the three vacancies and have introduced legislation to reduce the number of active judges on the court from 11 to eight. Democrats have dismissed the legislation and the GOP’s rationale for wanting to shrink the court.
Obama warned Senate Republicans not to block up-or-down votes on his D.C. Circuit picks, saying his judicial nominees have faced more delays and obstruction than those of his predecessors. “What’s happening now is unprecedented. For the good of the American people it has to stop,” he said. “The court’s decisions impact almost every aspect of our lives.”The D.C. Circuit leans conservative and is often considered the second most powerful federal court, one notch below the Supreme Court. It has decided cases about the limits of executive power and has limited the Obama administration’s regulatory authority on issues ranging from cigarette warning labels to consumer and environmental protections.
Obama’s decision to simultaneously select three nominees sets up a new battle with Republicans just as Democratic leaders are excoriating GOP obstruction and flirting with invoking the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster for nominees with a bare majority.
The three picks dovetail with three pending executive branch nominations that Republicans also oppose, for the Environmental Protection Agency (Gina McCarthy), Department of Labor (Tom Perez) and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (Richard Cordray).
With the simultaneous nominations, Obama is effectively daring Republicans to filibuster them all and risk being seen as abusing the tool for ideological reasons.
“I’m glad Republicans chose not to play politics and obstruct Sri [Srinivasan’s] nomination the way they did with Caitlin [Halligan],” he said. “I’m hopeful we can now build on that progress.”
A complicating factor: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has made clear that as fed-up as he is with Republican obstruction, he doesn’t want a filibuster dispute to get in the way of immigration reform. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has offered some minor concessions in response to Reid’s threats, and recently accused the Democratic leader of a “power grab” and of disrespecting the voice of the minority.
Meanwhile, after two failed attempts in recent years, the chief liberal proponents of filibuster reform are gearing up for their third bite at the apple. Larry Cohen, the president of Communications Workers of America union, a leader of the pro-reform Fix The Senate Now Coalition, held a conference call with reporters Monday to demand Democrats follow through and end the minority’s ability to block up-or-down votes on nominees.
“I think we have to stop making excuses how terrible Republicans are. Democrats need to step up and be the majority party that they are,” Cohen said. “Call it nuclear, call it whatever you want, but it’s in the Constitution. It is clear.”
It’s unclear how much influence CWA and the coalition have over Democrats. Cohen said liberals are well aware it could backfire when Republicans return to power but “that’s what democracy looks like. That’s what kids expect in a fifth grade civics class.”