WASHINGTON President Obama plans to name three nominees to the influential federal appeals court in Washington, a White House official said Monday, setting up a Senate battle with Republicans who say the court that issues opinions with nationwide impact doesn't need more judges.
Obama plans to announce his nomination of Patricia Ann Millett, Cornelia Pillard and Robert Leon Wilkins on Tuesday in the Rose Garden, according to the official who 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 nominees might not raise partisan rancor on their own - Millet worked in the George W. Bush administration, while Wilkins was confirmed unanimously in Obama's first term. But the D.C. Circuit is at the center of a years-long struggle between Obama and Senate Republicans.
A GOP bill would transfer two of the D.C. circuit's vacant seats to other circuits in the country that have higher caseloads, while eliminating the third vacancy.
The White House has responded sharply to that legislation and noted that Republicans voted to fill those vacancies when President George W. Bush made the nominations.
The District of Columbia Circuit has been at the center of years of wrangling between the White House and the Senate because its judges have so much influence over national and even international matters. Many cases, heard on the fifth floor of the federal courthouse across from the Capitol, relate to the balance of power in Washington and review of actions by federal agencies that affect health, safety and the environment for all Americans.
The White House is planning to pair Obama's nominations with an aggressive push to get them confirmed despite a GOP bill to trim the number of judges on the D.C. circuit. 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 the administration's 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.
But Republicans are questioning whether the D.C. circuit is busy enough to justify filling more seats. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the 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.
The debate over nominations to the D.C. circuit is not new. President George W. Bush's nomination of Miguel Estrada three and a half months after he became president in 2001 was blocked for a vote by Democratic senators even though he had the clear support of a majority of senators.
The intense dispute over the D.C. circuit is also because it serves as a sort of farm team for the Supreme Court, with four current justices having served on it. And even those circuit judges who don't go on to serve on the high court often are the final word on critical cases, since the Supreme Court reviews so few lower-court decisions.