Is President Obama’s Latest Judicial Nominee Too Qualified To Get Confirmed?

Yesterday, President Obama nominated Paul Watford to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. On paper, his nomination should be a cakewalk. Watford clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He has a bright career as an appellate litigator. And, at the young age of 44 he could have many years of distinguished judicial service ahead of him. Plus, he has a strong list of conservative endorsers:

“He’s incredibly intelligent and has solid integrity and great judgment,” said Daniel Collins, who recruited Watford back to the firm after a three-year stint at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles and a year at the rival firm of Sidley & Austin. “He just embodies the definition of judicial temperament — very level-headed and even-keeled.”

Collins, who clerked for conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and was a government lawyer in both Bush administrations, said he considered Watford a moderate who would be widely admired and respected. […]

Eugene Volokh, a University of California, Los Angeles law professor who has known Watford for nearly 20 years, also expressed satisfaction. […]

Jeremy Rosen, a partner at Horvitz & Levy and former president of the Los Angeles Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society, also said Watford was a choice many conservatives could support.

So Watford is super qualified! And a former Supreme Court clerk! And a bunch of right-wingers support him! What could possibly go wrong?


Well, former Ninth Circuit nominee Goodwin Liu could certainly answer that question. Like Watford, Liu is a young, super qualified former Supreme Court clerk. And, like Watford, Liu had high profile conservative endorsers like Clinton inquisitor Ken Starr and torture advocate John Yoo. Senate Republicans took one look at his resume, however, and envisioned a future where the Judge Liu of 2010 became the Justice Liu of 2014. So they spent nearly a year yanking lines from Liu’s scholarship out of context to paint him as a dangerous radical who wants to make America more like “communist-run China.”

Of course Liu was an easy target, since his many hundred pages of scholarship gave the GOP plenty of pages to comb through searching for attack lines. The same cannot be said about DC Circuit nominee Caitlin Halligan, however. Like Watford and Liu, Halligan is a young, super qualified former Supreme Court clerk. Unlike Liu, she spent most of her career in practice rather than in the academy. Beyond a trumped-up claim that Halligan is anti-gun because she once argued a guns case when she was solicitor general of New York — a position that is more indicative of the government of New York’s views than her own — there is virtually no case for conservatives to make against her nomination. Nevertheless, she has stagnated in the Senate for months, waiting for a vote.

Nor is this kind of rage against talent limited to judicial nominations. Earlier this year, Peter Diamond’s nomination to the Federal Reserve Board died because Sen. Richard Shelby declared Diamond too unqualified to serve in this economic policy position. Diamond is a Nobel Prize-winning economist.

So Watford is an exceptional attorney. He is at the top of his profession and he has received some of the greatest honors a lawyer can achieve. By all accounts, he is as prepared as anyone can possibly be to serve with distinction on the federal bench. If past is prologue, all of that will be his undoing.