Not satisfied with President Obama for appointing record numbers of gay, female and minority judges, liberal groups and labor unions are now pressuring the president to nominate more jurists who have backgrounds working for unions and public-interest organizations.
The Alliance for Justice, a coalition of more than 100 liberal groups, is lobbying the White House to “broaden the bench” with more judicial nominees who represent what it calls “professional diversity” — judges who are more likely to be aligned with the coalition’s liberal agenda.
“We face a federal bench that has a striking lack of diversity,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, said at an alliance event in Washington last week. She said Mr. Obama’s nominees have been “largely in line” with the professional backgrounds of previous presidents’ judicial candidates.
Although Mr. Obama has surpassed his predecessors in diversifying the federal bench along racial and gender lines, his liberal critics say he has selected too many candidates who have worked either as corporate lawyers or federal prosecutors.
The latest campaign is aimed at installing more judges who have served as public defenders, civil rights advocates and personal injury lawyers.
The alliance said in a report that 85 percent of Mr. Obama’s judicial nominees have worked as corporate lawyers or prosecutors. Less than 4 percent “have significant experience representing workers in labor and employment disputes,” the group said.
Four of the top 10 political donor groups in this year’s campaign cycle are labor unions, and roughly 90 percent of their $9 million in contributions go to Democratic candidates, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 2012 presidential race, single-issue groups donated more than $31 million, 55 percent of contributions, to Mr. Obama’s campaign.
Politics and judges
Conservatives say it’s the latest partisan campaign to mold the federal courts, where appointments are lifetime jobs.
“These groups are scrambling for a new way to pack the courts,” said Andrew Kloster, an analyst on the federal courts at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Just having diversity of skin color or gender isn’t enough to get what these liberal groups are really after, which is a certain type of political agenda.”
The White House said Mr. Obama has an unequaled record on the diversity of his judicial nominees when considering race, gender and sexual orientation. A slate of judges he nominated last week includes Darrin Gayles, a state circuit court judge in Florida, who would become the first openly gay black man on the federal bench.
The administration also said that of the 64 judicial nominees awaiting Senate confirmation, 27 are women, 12 are black, five are Hispanic, four are Asian-American, three are gay and one is American Indian. They represent “an unprecedented commitment to expanding the gender, racial, sexual orientation, and experiential diversity of the men and women who enforce our laws and deliver justice,” the White House said.
The liberal groups are making their push less than three months after Senate Democrats, at the president’s urging, eliminated the filibuster for blocking presidential nominations. The move did enable Mr. Obama to get seven more judges confirmed late last year, but only one judge has been confirmed since Jan. 1. There are 96 vacancies on the federal bench, representing about 12 percent of the overall seats.
Racing the clock?
Some observers say it’s no accident that the heightened campaign for more judges who may be sympathetic to a liberal agenda is coming ahead of the midterm elections, when Republicans have a good chance of winning back the Senate.
“I think they see the door closing,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond Law School. “They would like it to be more balanced.”
Mr. Tobias said the “bottlenecks” over judicial confirmations are likely to continue as Republicans use other tactics to block Mr. Obama’s nominees and force him to choose candidates who are more to their liking. He said the “sticking point” is over court vacancies in states with one or two Republican senators, who can stop nominations with the “blue slip” procedure. When home-state senators don’t return a blue slip for a nominee, the nomination doesn’t proceed.
“There are a whole bunch of vacancies clustered in Texas and Kentucky,” Mr. Tobias said. “It’s not an accident that those are places where you have one or two Republican senators.
Black lawmakers weigh in
Mr. Obama’s dealings with Republican senators over judicial nominations in their states have led to criticism from black lawmakers that the president isn’t appointing enough minority candidates. The Congressional Black Caucus last week complained to presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett about nominees such as Michael Boggs and Mark H. Cohen of Georgia.
Judge Boggs is a former state legislator who supported restrictions on access to abortion, voted to keep the Confederate battle flag as part of the state flag, and supported a proposed ban on same-sex marriage. Mr. Cohen, who worked as chief of staff in the Senate to Democrat Zell Miller, has defended Georgia’s voter ID law in court.
The president reportedly appointed the two as part of a deal last year with Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia to get a group of judges approved, to the ire of civil rights leaders.
In spite of the elimination of the filibuster, the Republicans’ stalling tactics on nominees appear to be getting the attention of Democrats and their supporters.
The Alliance for Justice, which cited abolishing the filibuster as one of its top 10 lobbying victories of 2013, is now urging Senate Democrats to change its rules to speed up votes on pending judicial nominations.
Mr. Kloster said the focus on nominees’ backgrounds ought to be irrelevant.
“Any president should consider and nominate judicial candidates based solely on their character and fitness, their competency and their integrity,” he said. “And the Senate should confirm candidates who have integrity, never mind where they come from.”