Reelected with strong support from women, ethnic minorities and gays, Obama is moving quickly to change the face of the federal judiciary by the end of his second term, setting the stage for another series of drawn-out confrontations with Republicans in Congress.
The president has named three dozen judicial candidates since January and is expected to nominate scores more over the next few months, aides said. The push marks a significant departure from the sluggish pace of appointments throughout much of his first term, when both Republicans and some Democrats complained that Obama had not tried hard enough to fill vacancies on federal courts.
The new wave of nominations is part of an effort by Obama to cement a legacy that long outlives his presidency and makes the court system more closely resemble the changing society it governs, administration officials said.
“Diversity in and of itself is a thing that is strengthening the judicial system,” White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said. “It enhances the bench and the performance of the bench and the quality of the discussion . . . to have different perspectives, different life experiences, different professional experiences, coming from a different station in life, if you will.”
But Obama’s biggest obstacle is the Senate, where Republicans have frequently blocked judicial confirmation votes for months or, in some cases, years. Obama has 35 nominees currently awaiting votes by the Senate — including several holdovers from 2012 who have been renominated this year — and there are more than 50 additional vacancies awaiting nominees, according to the Federal Judicial Center.
Some conservatives are skeptical of the push to name more women and minorities to the bench, arguing that it amounts to unjustified affirmative action. Curt Levey, an outspoken Obama critic who runs the advocacy group Committee for Justice, said the White House may be “lowering their standards” to nominate more nonwhite judges.
“If they’re talking about achieving [diversity] through aggressive identification of minority candidates, then that’s their prerogative,” Levey said. “If they’re talking about doing it through preferences, having a lower threshold of qualifications for minorities, then I don’t approve. And it’s hard to know which they’re doing. Unlike a college admissions system, where it’s easy to quantify, this is difficult.”
During Obama’s first term, judicial nominations often fell by the wayside in the face of the economic crisis and other policy priorities at the White House. Many liberal allies complained that the president did little to champion nominees once they were named.
“Republicans will throw up every roadblock they can,” said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice. “We’re counting on the White House and Senate leadership to be more assertive in getting nominees confirmed.”