Obama Backers Fear Opportunities to Reshape Judiciary Are Slipping Away

The New York Times
November 14, 2009

WASHINGTON — President Obama has sent the Senate far fewer judicial nominations than former President George W. Bush did in his first 10 months in office, deflating the hopes of liberals that the White House would move quickly to reshape the federal judiciary after eight years of Republican appointments.

Mr. Bush, who made it an early goal to push conservatives into the judicial pipeline and left a strong stamp on the courts, had already nominated 28 appellate and 36 district candidates at a comparable point in his tenure. By contrast, Mr. Obama has offered 12 nominations to appeals courts and 14 to district courts.

Theodore Shaw, a Columbia University law professor who until recently led the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., said liberals feared that the White House was not taking advantage of its chance to fill vacancies while Democrats enjoy a razor-thin advantage in the Senate enabling them to cut off the threat of filibusters against nominees. There are nearly 100 vacancies on federal courts.

“It’s not any secret that among the civil rights community and other folks there has been a growing concern about the pace of nominations and confirmations,” Mr. Shaw said. “You have to move fairly quickly because things are going to shut down before you know it, given that next year is an election year and who knows what is going to happen in the midterm elections. No one wants a blown opportunity.”

The departure of the White House counsel, Gregory B. Craig, announced on Friday, raises another concern: a leadership vacuum may be forming at the highest ranks of the administration’s judicial selection team. The administration also recently announced that Cassandra Butts, a deputy White House counsel who had played a leading role in judicial nominations, is leaving.

In addition, no one has been confirmed as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, which helps vet judges; Mr. Obama’s nomination of Christopher Schroeder for the position remains stalled in the Senate.

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