Circuit Broken

It’s just one small front in a major war over appointments, in which an administration that hasn’t often made such matters a priority is confronting a Republican oppositon that definitely has. But it’s still a bit shocking that Barack Obama has yet to place anyone on the most important federal court other than the Big One, the 11-seat D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has three current openings.

Here’s the story from Reuters’ Joan Biskopic:

Barack Obama is close to becoming the first president in at least half a century to finish a full term without making an appointment to a U.S. appeals court, considered second in importance only to the Supreme Court.

When the U.S. Senate returns next week, a new chapter in the fight over judicial nominations will begin, with the stakes especially high for the Washington, D.C.-based court that hears challenges to government regulations, including those on environmental law and civil rights. The D.C. Circuit, as it is called, is also often a springboard to the Supreme Court where four of the current nine justices served on the D.C. Circuit….

Senate Republicans blocked the Democratic president’s one nominee to the D.C. Circuit in December, and the administration has yet to offer any new candidates.

“It is now getting almost too late for this presidential term, especially in the thick of an election year,” said University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt, who has studied nominations and was special counsel to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy during the Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan Supreme Court confirmations….

Of the eight active judges on the D.C. Circuit, five are appointees of Republican presidents, three of Democratic presidents. Although the court has 11 members, it routinely hears cases in three-judge panels, assigned randomly to cases, as do other federal appeals courts throughout the country.

These are, of course, lifetime appointments, and the ability to make them is an important part of any president’s legacy. If the president is re-elected, perhaps the delays in appointments and in confirmations for the D.C. Circuit won’t matter in the long run. If he loses, however…I somehow doubt the Romney or Santorum administration will make filling these vacancies quite so low a priority.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.