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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
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The federal government is operating with many top jobs vacant.
INSKEEP: In recent weeks, we've reported on agencies without permanent leaders and judicial seats empty. Now let's zoom in to an especially vital part of the government.
GREENE: The appeals court in Washington, D.C. is often considered second in importance only to the Supreme Court itself. It often delivers the final word on environmental, labor and national security cases.
INSKEEP: And four of its 11 judgeships are vacant. Washington lawyer Lesley Proll says the Senate has not confirmed replacements.
LESLEY PROLL: John Roberts is now in his eighth Supreme Court term, and we have yet to fill his seat on the D.C. Circuit.
GREENE: NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Washington appeals court represents the legal version of Triple-A Baseball: the last destination before a player hits the majors. Nearly half of the justices on the current Supreme Court - including Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg - started out on the D.C. Circuit bench before they reached the big leagues.
PATRICIA WALD: Every president since 1948 has had at least one and more judges that were confirmed onto the D.C. Circuit, in the first term.
JOHNSON: That's retired Judge Patricia Wald, who served on the D.C. Circuit for 20 years. Wald told a crowd at the Center for American Progress that by failing to get even one nominee confirmed to the court over the past four years, President Barack Obama broke a record that goes back to the days of Harry Truman.
The situation's got people like Caroline Fredrickson sounding alarm bells, demanding the White House make this a priority.
CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: These vacancies cannot wait any longer, because the impact on the American public and the administration of justice is so significant, that it cannot be relegated to a second-priority issue.
JOHNSON: Fredrickson leads the American Constitution Society, a left-leaning group that tracks judicial openings.
Out of 11 slots on the D.C. Circuit, only seven are filled: four judges appointed by Republican presidents and three by Democrats. That lineup matters, she says, because the D.C. Circuit decides whether federal actions pass muster, everything from labor management fights and voting rights changes in states with a history of discrimination to appeals from detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Then Fredrickson says there's this...
FREDRICKSON: The clean air that we breathe, we hope to breathe, the clean water that we'd like to drink, all the EPA regulations around climate change are subject to this court's review. And this court has shown itself extraordinarily hostile to efforts to protect people from environmental dangers.
JOHNSON: President Obama's judge nominees have run into strong opposition from Republican lawmakers. One nominee for the D.C. Circuit withdrew last month after she was filibustered for a second time.
Carrie Severino, who calls herself a judicial conservative, says partisan fights over nominees to the D.C. appeals court are nothing new. Highly qualified Republican nominees got stranded in the Bush years, too.
CARRIE SEVERINO: It is often a circuit that Supreme Court justices come from. I think that's why the president is focusing on it - not because of the real judicial need, but because he wants to get his people placed well.
JOHNSON: Severino says the workload is down at the D.C. Circuit. It's so slow, she says, that judges routinely cancel some argument days because there aren't enough cases to fill those slots.
SEVERINO: There are more seats, technically, assigned to the D.C. Circuit than it really merits, given its current caseload.
JOHNSON: Democrats say the case numbers aren't always the best measure, since most disputes before the D.C. Circuit are unusually complex.
For the past few months, liberals have been leaning on the White House to do something about the vacancies.
Yesterday, spokesman Jay Carney said the president would throw his weight behind Sri Srinivasan. He's a deputy in the solicitor general's office who's appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court two dozen times, including last week's gay marriage arguments.
JAY CARNEY: Sri's confirmation will be an important first step to filling this court's four vacancies, and he will be, when confirmed, the first South Asian circuit court judge in history.
JOHNSON: Srinivasan will have a Senate hearing next week.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.