Why is the GOP so obsessed with three little judges?

D.C. Circuit Court is quietly one of the biggest roadblocks to Obama's agenda. Republicans want to keep it that way

Published May 29, 2013 8:12PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell              (Reuters/Jim Young)
Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Jim Young)

It's beginning to feel a bit like 1937 in Washington this week as the White House and Senate Republicans hurl allegations of "court-packing" up and down Pennsylvania Avenue at one another. The what -- Republican obstruction of Obama's nominees to fill three vacant seats on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals -- has been widely and well covered elsewhere. What bears further explanation is the why. It goes without saying that the GOP has an interest in blocking Obama's nominees in general; the fewer judges the president appoints, the less liberal the courts overall. But why do they care so much about these three particular nominees -- who haven't even been named yet -- that they're willing to risk triggering a "nuclear war" on filibuster reform while also trying to change the basic makeup of the court.

First, there's the numbers. Right now, Republican appointees have an effective 9-5 majority on the D.C. Court. There are only 11 "active" seats, but another six judges serve as a sort of auxiliary corps in a semi-retirement status where they participate in cases as needed. With three vacancies on the active bench, these "senior" judges are needed often. Of all the judges, three were appointed by George W. Bush, two by George H.W. Bush, and four by Ronald Reagan, compared to just three by Bill Clinton, and one by Jimmy Carter. Until last week, when the Senate finally confirmed Sri Srinivasan, Obama had made zero successful appointments in over four years, despite the vacancies, thanks to GOP obstruction.

"That's what this is about. It's that the court is already packed in favor of Republican judges," Judith Schaeffer, the vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, told Salon.

Second, the stakes couldn't be higher. With near-exclusive purview over federal government action, the D.C. Circuit will be a critical battleground in legal challenges against everything from the Affordable Care Act to new EPA regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention labor policy, gun safety regulations, Wall Street reform, national security issues, campaign finance, voting rights, and much more. With Congress deadlocked, executive action has become an increasingly important tool for the Obama White House, and the D.C. Circuit is where people trying to stop those reforms will mount their fights. Already, the Republican majority on the court has rolled back a major EPA air pollution rule, curbed Obama's recess appointment powers and hamstrung the National Labor Relations Board.

Outside of the House of Representatives, the court is one of  the most important roadblocks to Obama's agenda. Obviously, Republicans would like to keep it that way.

But now, the White House is reportedly planning to push through three nominations simultaneously in an effort to overcome GOP filibusters. Republicans have filibustered plenty of nominees, but they pounced on this plan with unusual vigor and a unified message. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, called this scheme "court packing." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the White House is trying "to pack the D.C. Circuit with appointees." Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a constitutional lawyer hailed by conservatives for his legal smarts, also invoked the term.

It's a little disturbing to think that three of the Senate's top Republicans on judicial matters have no idea what court packing is, but that's what we're lead to believe if we assume they're being honest in their charges. FDR tried to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937 by dramatically expanding its size, so he could appoint more justices who agreed with him. Court packing involves trying to change the rules of the game in your favor. Obama is following the rules set forth by the Constitution and Congress by aiming to fill three already vacant seats. To accuse Obama of court packing is plainly ridiculous.

Now, wouldn't it be ironic if Grassley and his colleagues were in fact the ones who wanted to change the rules of the game? As it turns out, they do. Grassley wants to eliminate the three vacant seats from the court entirely, thus cementing the current Republican majority indefinitely. This is the plan that has led the White House to turn the "court packing" allegation back on Republicans, as White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer did in a blog post today. "[O]n the merits, Senator Grassley’s 'court unpacking proposal' fails to make any sense," the Obama aide wrote.

Grassley's argument -- or pretext, depending on where you sit on the political spectrum -- is that the D.C. Circuit is underworked, because it sees fewer cases per judge than other appellate courts. Eliminating each judgeship would save $1 million per judge per year. Million with an "m" -- a pretty puny amount of money when it comes to government.

Critics, meanwhile, see Grassley's plan as little more "pure partisan hypocrisy," as Schaeffer said, predicated on an erroneous assumption about the court's workload. Currently, the D.C. Circuit has 120 pending cases per authorized judgeship, which Grassley says is too few. But under George W. Bush, Grassley voted to confirm two judges when the court had just 109 cases per judge.

And everyone agrees the cases the D.C. Circuit deals with are far more complicated than those seen on other circuits, so you can't really compare the numbers. "There is cause for extreme concern that Congress is systematically denying the court the human resources it needs to carry out its weighty mandates," wrote Pat Wald, who was the chief judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals, in the Washington Post.

You don't have to be a federal courts scholar to see the stakes here, or the politics at play, but they're probably hoping only scholars will pay attention.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Appellate Courts Barack Obama Chuck Grassley Fdr Federal Courts Mitch Mcconnell Republicans