Federal Courts and Nominations

Obama to name two female lawyers and an African American federal judge to U.S. appeals court in District of Columbia

By Juliet Eilperin


President Obama will nominate two female lawyers and an African American federal judge Tuesday to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, part of an effort to help reshape the federal judiciary before he leaves office.


The president will nominate veteran appellate lawyer Patricia A. Millett; Georgetown University Law Center professor Cornelia ­T. L. Pillard; and Robert L. Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made.


It is unclear whether Senate Republicans will accept the idea of approving a trio of judges in quick succession to fill the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, one of the nation’s most influential courts. Late last month, the Senate confirmed Justice Department official Sri Srinivasan in a unanimous vote. Srinivasan’s appointment marked the first time since 2006 that the Senate has approved a presidential nominee to the D.C. Circuit.


Millett, Pillard and Wilkins are all experienced, but their nominations come at a time when Republicans are questioning the need for 11 seats on the court.


Millett is a partner at the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and has litigated frequently before the Supreme Court as well as the federal courts of appeals. Pillard, who has worked at both the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and in the Solicitor General’s office, was tenured at Georgetown in 2005. She continues to appear before the Supreme Court and serves as faculty co-director of the law center’s Supreme Court Institute.


Wilkins was confirmed by the Senate for his post without opposition in 2010. In addition to working at the firm Venable LLP in Washington, he worked nearly full time between 2000 and 2002 to help establish the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.


The court has considerable sway because it rules on a variety of domestic policies, such as curbing greenhouse gases linked to climate change and providing warning labels for cigarettes.


Obama’s move “is a watershed moment for this president and the future of this critical court,” said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal group that has urged Obama to counter the influence of conservative jurists.


“President Obama has bent over backwards to accommodate concerns of Senate Republicans but has been met with unprecedented obstruction,” Kendall added.


Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, made it clear Monday that Obama’s nominees will face serious resistance.


“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,” he said in a statement, noting that there were nearly 200 fewer appeals filed in the D.C. Circuit in 2012 than in 2005. “It’s hard to imagine any reason for three more judges, no matter who nominates them.”

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