Obama nominates 3 judges; sets stage for congressional battle

President Obama announces the nominations of Robert Wilkins, Patricia Ann Millett, and Cornelia Pillard to fill the remaining vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court
CBS News/Major Garrett

President Obama on Tuesday nominated three judges to serve on the critical U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, setting the stage for yet another battle with Senate Republicans over his power to appoint judicial nominees.

In a statement at the White House Tuesday, Mr. Obama tapped Cornelia Pillard, a Georgetown University law professor; Patricia Ann Millett, an appeals lawyer, and Robert Leon Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. District Court in

Washington, to serve on the D.C. Circuit court, all but challenging Republicans to attempt to block the nominations for one of the nation's most powerful courts. If confirmed, the ideological balance of the court would shift from conservative to Democratic.

"These three individuals are highly qualified to serve on the D.C. Circuit. They have broad bipartisan support from across the legal community. The nonpartisan American Bar Association have given them - each of them - its highest rating," Mr. Obama said in a statement announcing the nominations. "These are no slouches. These are no hacks. These are incredibly accomplished lawyers by all accounts.... There's no reason aside from politics for Republicans to block these individuals from getting an up or down vote."

Less than two weeks ago, the Senate unanimously confirmed the nomination of Sri Srinivasan to serve on the same court, marking the first time since 2006 the Senate has approved any person for the job. Since then, Republicans have rejected the notion that Srinivasan's approval might pave the way for other nominees, calling Mr. Obama's efforts to push three nominees through the process an attempt to pack the court.

"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," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in a statement on Monday.

Grassley, like many of his Republican colleagues, argues that the president should not be nominating judges to the D.C. Circuit court when there are other courts across the country where the need to fill judicial vacancies is more pressing.

"No matter how you slice it, the D.C. Circuit ranks last or almost last in nearly every category that measures workload," Grassley said in his statement. "There were nearly 200 fewer appeals filed in the D.C. Circuit in 2012 than in 2005. In fact, the amount of cases that each active judge handles is nearly the same, despite having two fewer judges, in that same time frame. It's hard to imagine any reason for three more judges, no matter who nominates them."

Mr. Obama today dismissed that notion, laughing at what he characterized as a preposterous - and politically motivated - claim. He pointed out that the phrase "packing the court" derives from the Roosevelt administration, when there was an effort to add new seats to the Supreme Court in order to shift the balance in order to suit then-president Franklin Roosevelt's political agenda.

"We're not adding seats here. We're trying to fill seats that are already existing," he said, to laughter from the audience. "Right now there are three open seats on a critical court. I didn't create these seats... The Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats. What I'm doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job."

The president also scoffed at a Republican proposal suggesting that the number of seats on the D.C. Circuit Court just be reduced, rather than filled.

That, along with the court-packing suggestion, "also makes no sense," the president argued. He pointed out that some of the Republicans who support that idea voted in 2007 to keep 11 judges on the court, and that the Judicial Conference of the United States, which is led by Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative who was elevated to the Supreme Court from the very court in discussion on Tuesday, told the Senate in April that "the current workload before the D.C. court requires 11 judges."

"When a Republican was president, 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit Court made complete sense. Now that a Democrat is president it apparently doesn't. Eight is suddenly enough," he said. "People are laughing because it's obviously a blatant political move."

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