At the end of President Obama’s first term, exactly one name was at the top of many court-watchers lists of sitting federal judges that a Democratic president might place on the Supreme Court someday — Ninth Circuit Judge Paul Watford. That’s not because Judge Watford is a uniquely talented judge — although he is a highly regarded attorney and a former Supreme Court clerk — but rather because he is probably the only judge confirmed to a federal appeals court in President Obama’s first term that fits the typical model of a Democratic Supreme Court nominee. He was young. His clerkship tags him as brilliant. And there was, at least, no reason to doubt he would vote in line with other left-of-center judges.
After Obama’s second term, however, the picture could look quite different.
First there was Judge Sri Srinivasan, the brilliant Supreme Court advocate recently confirmed to the DC Circuit. Like Watford, Srinivasan’s views are largely unknown, so both men will need to spend more time revealing themselves as judges before a president should feel entirely confident placing them on the nation’s highest Court. But Srinivasan is only in his mid-40s so he has plenty of years of eligibility left for a Supreme Court nomination.
Not long after Srinivasan joined the bench, the President announced three more nominees — Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins — to the same court. Millett’s record of advocacy on behalf of big business is unlikely to bring joy into the hearts of Obama’s progressive base, but she is among the leading Supreme Court advocates in the country and she too is young enough to have plenty of time to prove herself on a lower court. Her fellow nominee Nina Pillard needs no seasoning to prove herself. She’s a leading feminist scholar who litigated and won a pair of important women’s rights victories in the Supreme Court.
In other words, it’s clear that Obama has figured out that he needs to leave his successor with some options should a vacancy open up on the nation’s highest court. Now the task falls to Senate Democrats to ensure these nominees are not filibustered to oblivion — a goal they can achieve at any time by invoking the so-called nuclear option.