Justice

What We Know About The Judges Obama Is Reportedly Vetting For The Supreme Court

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

After an evening meeting, President Barack Obama walks along the colonnade from the Oval Office to the White House Residence in Washington, Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, carrying a binder containing information on possible Supreme Court nominees.

According to the Washington Post, the White House is considering six candidates for the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia: federal appeals court judges Sri Srinivasan, Jane Kelly, Merrick Garland, Paul Watford, and Patricia Millett, along with district judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Judge Sri Srinivasan

Judge Sri Srinivasan

Judge Sri Srinivasan

Judge Sri Srinivasan offers the conventional mix of youth, experience, and credentials that presidents often look for when selecting a Supreme Court nominee. A judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, a court that is widely considered the second most powerful in the nation, Srinivasan was confirmed to this job by a 97-0 vote. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, served as the principal deputy to Solicitor General Don Verrilli, and argued more than two dozens cases in the Supreme Court before his own elevation to the bench.

Srinivasan’s record during his just under three years as a judge suggests that his approach to the law is similar to other mainline Democratic appointees. Among other things, Srinivasan authored an opinion reinstating minimum wage and overtime protections for home care workers after those protections were cut off by a trial judge’s order. And he was one of three judges on a panel that refused to halt the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, it’s most aggressive effort to fight climate change. (Shortly before Scalia’s death, the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc halted this effort on their own, over the dissent of all four of the Court’s liberals.)

The case challenging the Clean Power Plan remains ongoing, however, and it is still pending before the panel that includes Judge Srinivasan. Thus, nominating Srinivasan presents some risk for the president because it could lead to a different judge being swapped in to hear this case. Should Srinivasan be confirmed to the Supreme Court, he would also need to recuse from the case because he already ruled on the request to temporarily halt the Plan as a circuit judge. Some of the White House’s liberal allies have also expressed concerns about Srinivasan’s record prior to becoming a judge; his past clients include ExxonMobil and former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling.

Judge Jane Kelly

Judge Jane Kelly

Judge Jane Kelly

By the ultra-elite standards of the very top echelons of the legal profession, Judge Jane Kelly does not have the same eye-popping credentials as Srinivasan. After graduating with honors from Harvard Law, Kelly clerked for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, but never for a Supreme Court justice. While Srinivasan made a name for himself in DC as one of the nation’s top Supreme Court litigators, Kelly toiled in relative obscurity in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Dismissing Kelly’s credentials because they do not match up with Srinivasan’s, however, is a bit like labeling Wonder Woman a weakling because she does not pack quite as much of a punch as Superman. Elite law firms currently offer a signing bonus of up to $75,000 for recent law graduates fresh out of a federal circuit clerkship, and that’s in addition to a starting salary in the mid-to-high $100,000s. So Kelly could have enjoyed a very lavish life in a prestigious legal practice.

She turned this life down to become a public defender, a job she held until her appointment to the Eighth Circuit in 2013. She continued to do that job even after she was attacked by an unknown assailant and left for dead while jogging in 2004. “After having that happen to her,” former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) later said about Kelly, “she went right back to work sticking up for the constitutional rights of people accused by the federal government. To me, that was a mark of real character and sort of inner strength and resolve that something like that was not going to make her throw in the towel.”

A Kelly nomination could also embarrass Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who has thus far refused to consider anyone that President Obama names to fill Scalia’s seat. Grassley praised her nomination to the Eighth Circuit, quoting a friend of his on the federal bench who praised her “exceptionally keen intellect” and concluded that “she will be a welcomed addition to the Court if confirmed.” If Kelly is the nominee, expect videos like this one, where Grassley urges his colleagues to confirm her, to become a stable of cable news coverage of the nomination:

Chief Judge Merrick Garland

Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the DC Circuit is the sort of nominee that Obama and Senate Republicans might agree to elevate to the Supreme Court as a compromise, if compromise is actually possible with the current Senate majority. Garland, who President Clinton appointed to the DC Circuit in 1997, is far and away the oldest candidate among the four the White House is reportedly vetting — he’s 63. In nearly two decades on the bench, Garland has also built a fairly centrist record.

Chief Judge Merrick Garland

Chief Judge Merrick Garland

Like the much younger Srinivasan, Garland’s resume is laden with the kind of credentials that make mere mortal attorneys droll with envy — including a clerkship for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and a senior Justice Department job prior to Garland’s elevation to the bench. On most issues, moreover, is is likely that Garland would side with the Supreme Court’s liberal bloc in divided cases.

Nevertheless, there are a few areas where his instincts appear more conservative. In 2003, Garland joined an opinion holding that the federal judiciary lacks the authority, “to assert habeas corpus jurisdiction at the behest of an alien held at a military base leased from another nation, a military base outside the sovereignty of the United States,” effectively prohibiting Guantanamo Bay detainees from seeking relief in civilian courts. The Supreme Court reversed this decision a little over a year later in Rasul v. Bush. (Though, it is worth noting that legal experts disagree about whether the result Garland supported was compelled by then-existing precedents.)

Garland also appears to have relatively conservative instincts in criminal justice cases. According to a 2010 examination of Garland's decision by SCOTUSBlog's Thomas Goldstein, "Judge Garland rarely votes in favor of criminal defendants' appeals of their convictions." Goldstein "identified only eight such published rulings," as well as an additional seven where "he voted to reverse the defendant's sentence in whole or in part, or to permit the defendant to raise a argument relating to sentencing on remand," during the 13 years Garland had then spent as a federal judge.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia is the only federal trial judge among the six mentioned by the Washington Post. At 45, she is also the youngest, Jackson's resume includes several years of private practice, service on the United States Sentencing Commission, and work as a public defender. She clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Jackson's current status as a trial judge could prove to be both a blessing and a curse if she is Obama's nominee. On the one hand, appellate judgeships are considered to be more prestigious than trial judgeships. The Supreme Court is also an appellate court, so a judge with experience at the appellate level is likely to be more used to the kind of work that goes into being a justice. That said, nearly all of the cases heard by the Supreme Court began in trial courts, and they can often turn upon procedural motions, fact-finding and other matters that occurred at the trial level. Currently, the only sitting justice with experience as a trial judge is Justice Sonia Sotomayor, so Jackson would bring an underrepresented perspective to the nation's highest Court.

According to the Washington Post, the White House is focusing on potential nominees "with scant dis­cern­ible ideology and limited judicial records as part of a strategy to surmount fierce Republican opposition." Jackson, however, does have some opinions that are likely to fuel Republican opposition if she is nominated. In Rothe Development v. Department of Defense, Jackson rejected a challenge to a program that provides "technological, financial, and practical assistance, as well as support through preferential awards of government contracts" to companies that are designated as "small disadvantaged businesses." One of the criteria used to determine if a business qualifies for this designation is whether a majority owner of the business belongs to a racial minority group. Though Jackson's opinion upholding this limited consideration of race in government contracting closely tracks a 2012 decision by another judge of her court, which rejected a "nearly identical" challenge, it is likely that Rothe Development will play a starring role in conservative attack ads should Jackson be the nominee.

Additionally, Jackson denied a request by the website Gawker that tried to "force former Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines to explain why he had work-related emails in a private account." Although her decision merely concluded that the request was "premature," and not that it could not succeed at a later date, it is unlikely that conservative attack groups will dwell on that nuance if Jackson is the nominee.

Judge Paul Watford

Judge Paul Watford

Judge Paul Watford

ThinkProgress previously described Judge Paul Watford as a "conventional superqualified nominee." A former law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Watford joined the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2012, after spending a few years as a federal prosecutor and then becoming a partner in a large law firm.

Watford, however, had a somewhat more rocky confirmation process than Srinivasan and Kelly -- a fact that may stem from Watford being one of only a handful of judicial nominees President Obama named in his first term who fit the conventional profile for a future Supreme Court justice. Grassley, in particular, objected to a few amicus briefs Watford wrote while still in private practice, including a brief opposing Arizona's anti-immigrant law SB 1070, and another one filed on behalf of groups opposed to Kentucky's lethal injection protocol. Judge Watford was eventually confirmed by a 61-34 vote.

Since becoming a judge, Watford authored three opinions in cases that were later reviewed by the Supreme Court. The justices agreed with Watford about the correct result in all three -- including a case where the Supreme Court agreed with Watford's decision to strike down a Los Angeles ordinance requiring hotels to share guest records with police even if the police do not have a warrant.

Judge Patricia Millett

Judge Patricia Millett

Judge Patricia Millett

Like Srinivasan, Judge Patricia Millett was among the nation's top Supreme Court advocates prior to her appointment to the DC Circuit -- arguing 32 cases during her time as an attorney in the Solicitor General's office and later in private practice. Prior to becoming a judge, she also served on the board of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights organization in Washington, DC. During her confirmation to the DC Circuit, one of the most active lobbying groups working on her behalf was a network of lawyers who are also military spouses. Millett's husband served in the Navy, and they met at a church event while he was stationed at the Pentagon and were later married in the same church.

Under normal circumstances, a Millett nomination would be a considerable olive branch extended toward Senate Republicans. Among other things, Millett once defended the conservative Roberts Court's record in business cases during testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that the justices “show[ed] a fair amount of balance in the business area” during a previous term. In just over two years on the DC Circuit, she's authored just over two dozen majority opinions, none of which are particularly ideological

(The president's opponents may complain about an opinion rejecting a challenge to various aspects of the Affordable Care Act and its implementation, but that lawsuit received little backing from interest groups that have otherwise been eager to support suits against Obamacare that have even a small chance of prevailing. Judge Millett's opinion in that case was also joined by a conservative George H.W. Bush appointee.)

Millett, however, was also the very first judge confirmed after Senate Democrats invoked the so-called "nuclear option" to allow lower court nominations to be confirmed by a simple majority vote. This maneuver, which effectively shut down Senate Republican efforts to maintain ideological control over the nation's second most powerful court, remains a sore spot among Senate Republicans. If Millett is the nominee, it is likely that many senators will take their frustrations with this rules change out on the judge.