STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Now let's look at some more evidence of dysfunction in Congress, following the difficult debt deal and the stalemate over FAA funding. Nominations of two dozen judges by President Obama are stuck in the Senate. These are judges nominated to the federal bench.
More than half of these nominees, it turns out, are women and minorities. Despite the delays in the Senate, NPR's Carrie Johnson reports the White House has done more to diversify the ranks of federal judges than ever before.
CARRIE JOHNSON: When it comes to this White House and judges, there's a string of firsts - the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, the first openly gay man on a federal district court, and the first women nominees who are Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.
KATHRYN RUEMMLER: It's a very important priority for the president.
JOHNSON: That's Kathryn Ruemmler, Mr. Obama's top lawyer in the White House.
RUEMMLER: Having racial diversity, gender diversity, experiential diversity, all of those things we are mindful of and committed to seeking out when we're looking for the best candidates.
JOHNSON: There are almost 900 federal judges in the U.S., and most of them are still white men. Mr. Obama said during the campaign that he wanted to change that, to make sure that judges look more like the rest of the American people.
And Robert Raben, a Democratic lobbyist, says he gives this White House high marks.
ROBERT RABEN: Promises made, promises kept. President Obama and his team committed to improving the diversity on the federal bench, and they get an A-plus on that.
JOHNSON: That sentiment is far from universal. Ed Whelan is a prominent conservative. He used to work in the George W. Bush Justice Department.
ED WHELAN: The Obama administration doesn't have a coherent judicial philosophy, so it's not surprising that it's falling back on diversity, which I think it sees, among other things, appealing to its various political constituencies.
JOHNSON: Whelan says it's too soon to evaluate the record of the judges Mr. Obama has appointed to the federal bench. But he says there's a simple explanation for the more diverse choices this president has made: There's a much bigger pool of minority candidates with lots of legal experience.
Caroline Fredrickson leads the American Constitution Society. She's been following the judge nominees closely. Fredrickson says almost half of the 97 candidates who have won confirmation during Mr. Obama's presidency are women. About a quarter are black. And Mr. Obama is the first president to nominate four openly gay people.
CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: Obama is nominating many more diverse nominees than his predecessors - strikingly so. But the nominees are not getting confirmed with the same kind of success.
JOHNSON: Some of the longest-waiting nominees, Louis Butler of Wisconsin, Charles Day of Maryland and Edward Dumont of Washington, happen to be black or openly gay.
FREDRICKSON: For women and minorities, it's just been a bigger hill to climb before they actually get a vote. And so for whatever the reasons, the facts speak for themselves.
WHELAN: It's not at all clear to me whether the focus on diversity has delayed the process, or whether other things have.
JOHNSON: Ed Whelan says there are plenty of other explanations for the trouble with getting judges confirmed. For one thing, he says, the White House was slow to nominate candidates for the first year of Mr. Obama's term, and that could come back to haunt them as election season looms.
Kathryn Ruemmler, the new White House counsel, says she's been meeting with Senators on both sides of the aisle to try to pave the way.
RUEMMLER: We want to really hit the ground running when the Senate comes back in September to get as many folks both nominated and confirmed as we possibly can in that window of time.
JOHNSON: Because if history is any guide, the window could slam shut before winter and be hard to pry open before the next inauguration.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.