Another Senate Battle Looms Over Judicial Nominees

With a potential blowup over executive branch nominations defused for now, the Senate may next have to wrestle with judicial nominations. President Obama wants three appointees to the powerful District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals approved quickly, but Republicans question the need for any more judges there at all. The impasse may bring the chamber to another showdown over the use of the filibuster.

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You could say another blockbuster battle is shaping up on Capitol Hill - over nominations. This one does not concern President Obama's executive branch appointments. That fight got settled at the 11th hour last week. This dispute is over judicial nominations, specifically over Obama's bid to fill three vacancies on the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. It's widely considered the nation's second most important court.

Yesterday, Republicans argued the court has enough judges already. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As Georgetown University law professor Nina Pillard sat alone at a table awaiting a grilling as one of the nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court, the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Republican questioned whether anyone should be there. Iowa's Charles Grassley said that court's workload does not justify filling its three vacancies.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: I believe it is a mistake to move forward with these nominations when there's so much disagreement about whether these seats are even needed.

WELNA: To which the panel's Democratic chairman, Patrick Leahy, replied that the number of cases pending before the court divided by the eight judges now sitting on it is considerably higher than it was during the last administration.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: You know, the numbers, of course, are far more favorable to President Obama for filling these seats than it was for President Bush, and I would hope that President Obama is not going to be held to a different standard as though somehow he's different than President Bush.

WELNA: When Bush was president, Democrats blocked several of his nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court. Republicans blocked one of President Obama's nominees for more than two years before the nomination was withdrawn. The Senate did approve another Obama nominee to the court two months ago, but Republicans said at the time they had no intention of confirming any more.

University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt says the court is politically key to both parties because the federal government is under its jurisdiction.

MICHAEL GERHARDT: So a lot of cases involving the scope of federal power come up in the D.C. circuit. Many cases involving administrative law or the power of the administrative agencies and administrative regulations come up in this court, and those turn out to be extremely important cases as far as the scope of federal power is concerned. And this court's also important because it's viewed as a natural stepping stone to the Supreme Court.

WELNA: Indeed, it's the court John Roberts left to become chief justice. Four of the court's judges are Republican appointees. Four were appointed by Democrats. At yesterday's confirmation hearing, Texas Republican Ted Cruz said the court's just fine as it is.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: And I have deep concerns about what the administration is doing now with a package of three nominees to the D.C. Circuit after the Senate just confirmed a very qualified nominee to the D.C. Circuit - I believe is an attempt by this administration to pack that court.

WELNA: When he made those three nominations on the same day last month, Obama scoffed at such charges.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These are open seats and 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.

WELNA: And if it doesn't, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley says there could be another showdown in the Senate.

SENATOR JEFF MERKLEY: I will be willing to push this. I can't say what form that will take, but I do believe that if a minority engages in blocking the opportunity for votes, they're engaging in a form of court-packing.

WELNA: It's a fight likely to play out in the fall, a season that promises a series of congressional showdowns. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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