Steering clear of judicial fights

STEERING CLEAR OF JUDICIAL FIGHTS…. President Obama will reportledy announce his first appeals court nominee this week, introducing District Court Judge David Hamilton of Indiana as his pick for the 7th Circuit. Hamilton is a respected jurist, universally described as a judicial “moderate,” and he will enjoy the enthusiastic backing of Indiana’s Democratic and Republican senators.

Hamilton’s confirmation is, at this point, practically a foregone conclusion. Apparently, that’s largely the point.

The administration official said part of the reason for making the Hamilton nomination the administration’s first public entry into the often contentious field of judicial selection was to serve “as a kind of signal” about the kind of nominees Mr. Obama will select. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the nomination had not been officially made.

The White House is planning to announce a handful of other candidates over the next few weeks to fill some of the 17 vacancies on the appeals courts, which are just below the level of the Supreme Court. On most of the 12 regional appeals courts, including on the Seventh Circuit for which Judge Hamilton has been nominated, a majority of the sitting judges were appointed by Republican presidents.

Mr. Obama’s selections will be closely watched to see what role he tries to play in shaping the ideology of the federal courts, which have influence over some of the nation’s most intensely felt social issues. The administration official said the White House was hoping to reduce the partisan contentiousness of judicial confirmation battles of recent years.

“We would like to put the history of the confirmation wars behind us,” the official said.

Hamilton is a fine pick, and absolutely deserves the nomination. I have every confidence that the 7th Circuit will be better off with his service.

For that matter, I can also appreciate the White House’s desire to get this process started on an uncontroversial note. Instead of picking a fight over a judge who would draw partisan ire, Obama wants the first nomination to go smoothly, and hopefully create some momentum for the coming years. Makes sense.

But I hope the president and his team, anxious to end “the confirmation wars” and “partisan contentiousness,” don’t shy away from even more progressive nominees just to avoid Republican outrage. Republican appointees enjoy the majority in most appeals courts, which are extremely important given that the Supreme Court only hears one out of every 10 cases that reach the building.

In Clinton’s second term, Senate Republicans slow-walked as many of the president’s judicial nominees as possible, waiting for the clock to run out on his presidency, and creating a vacacny “crisis” in the process. George W. Bush picked as many conservative ideologues as he could for the judiciary — he reveled in the “partisan contentiousness” — and GOP lawmakers helped him quickly move the courts significantly to the right.

Obama has an opportunity to bring some necessarily balance to the judiciary, made all the more real with a sizable Democratic majority in the Senate. The administration shouldn’t let the fear of minority-party whining discourage it from adding some strong, progressive voices to the bench.