Obama Nominates 3 Candidates to D.C. Circuit

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on June 05, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

President Obama made a trio of nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals: Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins. The president preemptively warned Senate Republicans not to stand in their way.

All three of the nominees are established lawyers with top ratings from the American Bar Association:

  • Patricia Millett is a veteran appeals lawyer who worked in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
  • Cornelia Pillard is a law professor at Georgetown University.
  • Robert Wilkins is a federal district judge who won unanimous confirmation in 2010.

The Potential Shift

"There's no reason, aside from politics, for Republicans to block these individuals from getting an up-or-down vote," the president said.

But alas, politics permeate the confirmation process, especially when it comes to spots on the D.C. Circuit -- second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in its effect on government policy, reports NPR.

From decisions on the EPA to the NLRB, politics is big for the D.C. Circuit. Since it's viewed as fairly conservative in its decisions, the president hopes a revamped D.C. Circuit will ease the regulatory roadblocks his administration currently faces in the court.

These three nominees would shift the balance on the D.C. Circuit, says Russell Wheeler, who tracks judicial nominations at the Brookings Institution. Nearly two-thirds of the full-time and senior judges now on the D.C. court were appointed by Republican presidents.

The New Fight: Downsizing the D.C. Circuit

The president pointed out that one of the seats has been vacant since 2005, when John Roberts moved up to the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans kept one of Obama's nominees in confirmation limbo for 2 1/2 years, until Caitlin Halligan gave up and withdrew her nomination.

By ushering in three nominations at once, the president is strategically testing the audacity of Republicans to object to all three.

But Republicans are dodging the dare. Looking to sidestep the confirmation fight, they're trying to cut the court at its knees by trying to downsize the D.C. appeals court itself, reports NPR. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell asked whether the court really needs more judges.

"I think the issue, if there is one, with regard to the D.C. Circuit, is the question of whether this circuit court, which is apparently less busy than all but one circuit courts in the nation, needs to have a full complement of judges," McConnell said.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has proposed cutting the court's size from 11 full-time judges to eight.

When accused by Republicans of trying to "pack" the court, President Obama retorted with a zinger: "When a Republican was president, 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit Court made complete sense," he said. "Now that a Democrat is president, it apparently doesn't. Eight is suddenly enough."

Interestingly, the judicial nominations could make it possible for Democrats to change the age-old Senate filibuster rules, which have allowed Republicans to block nominations.

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