Obama's judges leave liberal imprint on
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[August 27, 2016]
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When President
Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, the federal appeals court
based in Virginia was known as one of the most conservative benches in
Two Obama terms later, Democratic appointees hold a 10-5 majority on the
4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of which issued a
groundbreaking ruling this April backing transgender rights.
The shift to the left on the court, which hears cases from Virginia,
Maryland, West Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina, highlights a
widely overlooked aspect of Obama's legacy.
His appointments of dozens of judges to the country's influential
federal appeals courts have tilted the judiciary in a liberal direction
that will influence rulings for years to come and be further entrenched
if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins this November's presidential election.
A Reuters review of rulings by the courts over the last two years shows
Obama’s appointees to the appeals courts have influenced major legal
battles likely to ultimately reach the Supreme Court.
Obama-appointed judges have voted in favor of broad civil rights
protections, major Obama administration regulations and gun regulations
and against Republican-backed voting rules.
(Graphic showing the changes under Obama http://tmsnrt.rs/2blUhmV)
When seeking to appoint judges, the White House has said it is looking
for highly credentialed lawyers reflecting the diversity of U.S.
society. Conservative critics say he has picked judges who are willing
to circumvent the law in order to reach preferred outcomes.
"There’s no question President Obama’s nominees have absolutely been
part of his effort to transform the country and move it dramatically to
the left," said Carrie Severino, a conservative legal activist.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement that Obama's
appointees "all share impeccable qualifications, unquestioned integrity,
and a steadfast commitment to equal justice under the law."
The appeals courts are the first stop for any case appealed from the
lower U.S. district courts and often have the last word. The next and
final destination is the Supreme Court, but it hears fewer than 100
cases a year. The appeals courts handle 35,000 a year according to the
Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
Of the 13 appeals courts, nine now have a majority of Democratic
appointees, compared with one when Obama took office, according to
research carried out by Russell Wheeler, a scholar at the Brookings
Institution, a Washington think tank.
In addition to appointing two Supreme Court justices and dozens of
district court judges, Obama appointments now make up 55 of the current
168 appeals court judges, according to the judiciary. Obama’s current
total of 323 district and appeals court appointments, most of them
district court judges, is similar to the tallies achieved by other
recent two-term presidents.
The regional appeals courts are currently more powerful than ever
because of the vacancy on the Supreme Court caused by the death of
Justice Antonin Scalia, which has left the court divided equally between
liberals and conservatives. If the ideologically divided court splits
4-4, the appeals court ruling is left intact. Such an outcome occurred
four times in the Supreme Court term that recently ended.
Scalia's seat is unlikely to be filled until next year due to political
opposition from Republicans in the Senate, which has the job of
One of the most dramatic transformations has been on the 4th Circuit.
In July 2007, 18 months before Obama became president, Republican
appointees held a 7-5 majority. Through a mix of seven Obama
appointments and retirements, Democratic appointees now hold sway.
In April, a three-judge panel featuring two Obama appointees ruled in
favor of a transgender student seeking to use a boys' restroom. The two
Obama appointees were in the majority, with a Republican appointee
[to top of second column]
President Barack Obama
speaks from the Rose Garden of the White House to announce his three
nominees to fill vacancies on the United States Court of Appeals for
the District of Columbia in Washington June 4, 2013. The nominees
will be attorney Patricia Ann Millett (R), Georgetown law professor
Cornelia Pillard (behind Obama) and U.S. District Court Judge Robert
Leon Wilkins (L). REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Three months later, a three-judge panel featuring two Obama
appointees and one judge appointed by Democratic President Bill
Clinton struck down North Carolina's strict voter identification law
on a 3-0 vote, saying the state legislature had enacted it with
It is one of several recent court rulings pushing back on
Republican-led efforts to impose new voting regulations, which
Democrats say is intended to deter minorities from voting.
Caroline Fredrickson, president of liberal legal group the American
Constitution Society, said Republican-appointed judges are generally
less likely to rule in favor of broad interpretations of civil
rights. The transgender case would "very likely" have come out
differently with a more conservative panel of judges, she said.
The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. is another where the
balance of power has been flipped. Often known in legal circles as
the second highest court in the land because it hears important
cases concerning the federal government, the U.S. Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia Circuit was dominated by conservatives
6-3 when Obama took office.
Obama was able to force through four appointments after a major
showdown in the Senate. The court now has a 7-4 split in favor of
In June, an Obama appointee, Judge Sri Srinivasan, cast the deciding
vote as a three-judge panel upheld the Federal Communication
Commission's so-called "net neutrality" regulation. Srinivasan
joined a Clinton appointee in the majority. A judge appointed by
Republican President Ronald Reagan dissented. The regulation is
widely opposed by the telecommunications industry and backed by
digital rights advocates.
Obama’s appointees do sometimes vote in favor of conservative
outcomes. Paul Watford, a judge on the San Francisco-based 9th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals, has on several occasions reached a
different conclusion to his more liberal colleagues. In one recent
decision from Aug. 15, he dissented along with conservative judges
when the court ruled that a death row inmate should be able to file
a new appeal.
When announcing three of his nominees to the appeals court in
Washington at a White House press conference in June 2013, Obama
rejected any notion that they were political pawns, emphasizing
their strong credentials.
"These are no slouches. These are no hacks," he said.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Stuart Grudgings.)
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