Remarks by the President on the Nominations to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
10:28 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. Please have a seat.
So one of the most important responsibilities of a President is to nominate qualified men and women to serve as judges on the federal bench.
And Congress has a responsibility, as well. The Senate is tasked with providing advice and consent. They can approve a President’s nominee or they can reject a President’s nominee. But they have a constitutional duty to promptly consider judicial nominees for confirmation.
Now, throughout my first term as President, the Senate too often failed to do that. Time and again, congressional Republicans cynically used Senate rules and procedures to delay and even block qualified nominees from coming to a full vote.
As a result, my judicial nominees have waited three times longer to receive confirmation votes than those of my Republican predecessor. Let me repeat that: My nominees have taken three times longer to receive confirmation votes than those of my Republican predecessor. These individuals that I nominate are qualified. When they were given an up or down vote in the Senate -- when they were finally given an up or down vote in the Senate, every one of them was confirmed. So this is not about principled opposition. This is about political obstruction.
I recognize that neither party has a perfect track record here. Democrats weren’t completely blameless when I was in the Senate. But what’s happening now is unprecedented. For the good of the American people, it has to stop. Too much of the people’s business is at stake. Our legal framework depends on timely confirmations of judicial nominees. And nowhere is this more apparent than with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The D.C. Circuit is known as the second highest court in the country, and there’s a good reason for that. The judges on the D.C. Circuit routinely have the final say on a broad range of cases involving everything from national security to environmental policy; from questions of campaign finance to workers’ rights. In other words, the court’s decisions impact almost every aspect of our lives.
There are 11 seats on the D.C. Circuit Court. When I first took office, there were two vacancies. Since then, two more judges have retired. That means there are four vacancies that needed to be filled. And by February of this year, more than one-third of the seats on the nation’s second highest court were empty. I mean, imagine if a third of the seats on the highest court -- the Supreme Court -- were empty. We would rightly consider that a judicial crisis. If we want to ensure a fair and functioning judiciary, our courts cannot be short-staffed.
In 2010, I put forward a highly qualified nominee for the D.C. Circuit -- Caitlin Halligan. Caitlin’s credentials were beyond question. She had bipartisan support from the legal and law enforcement communities. She had the support of a majority of senators. Nobody suggested she was not qualified to serve on the court. If Caitlin had gotten a simple up or down vote before the full Senate, I am confident she would have been easily confirmed. But instead, for two and a half years, Senate Republicans blocked her nominations. It had nothing to do with Caitlin’s qualifications. It was all about politics. And after two and a half years of languishing in limbo, this brilliant and principled lawyer asked me to withdraw her nomination.
Now, the good news is last year I put forward another highly qualified nominee -- Sri Srinivasan. And Sri’s credentials were also beyond question. And no doubt due to some mounting public pressure, along with the vocal bipartisan support that he received, Sri was unanimously confirmed a few weeks ago, becoming the first South Asian American to serve as a circuit court judge in our nation’s history.
So I’m pleased that the Senate acted. I’m glad Republicans chose not to play politics and obstruct Sri’s nomination the way they did with Caitlin’s. And I’m hopeful that we can now build on that progress, because Sri’s confirmation was the first to the D.C. Circuit in seven years. So out of the four vacancies that existed, one has now been filled. There are three seats still vacant on the D.C. Circuit Court -- one of them, by the way -- one of them has been vacant since Chief Justice Roberts was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2005. Anybody who values the role of our courts should find that unacceptable regardless of your party. Which brings me to today. That's why today I’m nominating three outstanding, highly qualified individuals to fill those remaining seats.
Now Patricia Millett is one of our nation’s finest appellate attorneys and, until recently, held the record for the most Supreme Court arguments by a female lawyer. She served in the Solicitor General’s Office for 11 years, for both Democratic and Republican Presidents. Since then, in private practice, she’s represented everyone from large businesses to individual pro bono plaintiffs. And, by the way, as the wife of a retired Navy officer, Patricia has served our nation outside the courtroom as well, as a member of a military family.
Nina Pillard’s career has been defined by an unshakeable commitment to the public good. She twice served in the Department of Justice and was an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Her landmark successes before the Supreme Court include defending the constitutionality of the Family and Medical Leave Act and opening the doors of the Virginia Military Institute to female students. And, today, Nina is a professor at Georgetown and, if confirmed, would continue the D.C. Circuit’s strong tradition of distinguished scholars going on to serve as judges -- from Antonin Scalia to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
And finally, this is the second time I’ve called on Judge Robert Wilkins to serve -- because in 2010, I nominated Robert to the D.C. District Court, and the Senate confirmed him without opposition. Before serving with distinction as a federal judge, Robert spent eight years in private practice and a decade as a public defender here in Washington, D.C., providing legal representation to defendants who could not afford an attorney. And throughout his career, Robert has distinguished himself as a principled attorney of the utmost integrity.
So these three individuals are highly qualified to serve on the D.C. Circuit. They have broad bipartisan support from across the legal community. The non-partisan American Bar Association have given them -- each of them -- its highest rating. These are no slouches. (Laughter.) These are no hacks. There are incredibly accomplished lawyers by all accounts. And there are members of Congress here today who are ready to move forward with these nominations, including the Chairman, Patrick Leahy. So there’s no reason -- aside from politics -- for Republicans to block these individuals from getting an up or down vote.
Despite that, some Republicans recently have suggested that by nominating these three individuals, I’m somehow engaging in -- and I’m quoting here -- in “court-packing.” (Laughter.) No -- people laugh, but this is an argument I’ve made. For those of you who are familiar with the history of court-packing, that involved Franklin Delano Roosevelt trying to add additional seats to the Supreme Court in order to water down and get more support for his political agenda. We’re not adding seats here. We’re trying to fill seats that are already existing. Each of the past five Presidents has seen at least three of their nominees confirmed to the D.C. Circuit. Since I’ve been President, obstruction has slowed that down to one.
Right now, there are three open seats on a critical court. I didn’t create these seats. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, let’s add three seats to the District Court of Appeals. These are open seats. And the Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats. What I am doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.
The fact that Republican senators are now pushing a proposal to reduce the number of judges on this independent federal court also makes no sense. When a Republican was President, 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit Court made complete sense. Now that a Democrat is President, it apparently doesn’t. Eight is suddenly enough. (Laughter.) People are laughing because it's obviously a blatant political move.
We know that because some of the same Republicans behind this current proposal to reduce the number of seats on the D.C. Circuit Court voted in 2007 to keep 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit -- same folks. They say the workload has decreased since then, but in April, the judicial conference of the United States -- which, by the way, is led by Chief Justice John Roberts and includes judges from various levels of the federal court system -- told the Senate that the current workload before the D.C. Circuit requires 11 judges. So they should know. That was just two months ago.
Chief Justice John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the highest court in the land, and former member of the D.C. Circuit Court says they need 11 judges. So it's important we don’t play games here, and it's important that we cut through the verbiage.
An essential part of our democracy is the separation of powers. The executive, the legislative, and the judiciary each have a role to play. And when it comes to judicial nominees, my responsibility is to put forward qualified individuals. These are three of the most qualified individuals you'll ever meet. The Senate's responsibility, in turn, is to promptly give them an up or down vote.
So today, I'm doing my part. I hope in the coming months that the Senate does its part, because I assure you, when these three outstanding individuals are on the bench, they will do their part. That’s what the Constitution demands. It's what the American people expect. And I look forward to years of outstanding service by these outstanding lawyers of incredible integrity.
And I promised that I would mention this before all of you -- they also have really good-looking families. (Laughter.) Because I just saw their kids, and -- (applause). All right. Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)
10:43 A.M. EDT