Washington — An influential Republican senator said Wednesday that he intends to support President Barack Obama's choice to fill a vacancy on the federal appeals court in Washington, a promising development for a Democratic administration that has complained that Republicans have been too slow to allow votes on many of its judicial nominees.
Of the court's seven active judges, four are GOP appointees and three are Democratic appointees. The court has four vacancies, and that gives Obama the opportunity to shift the balance of the court. Six senior judges on the court handle reduced caseloads.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah told Sri Srinivasan at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that he would make a "great" judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. At another point, Hatch told Srinivasan, "I think you're terrific."
Another Republican senator, Ted Cruz of Texas, finished his questioning of Srinivasan by telling him, "I thank you for a very fine job here today."
As the principal deputy solicitor general for the U.S., Srinivasan has argued cases to the Supreme Court. He has also represented clients in private practice.
Srinivasan, 46, deflected questions about positions he took as a lawyer, saying they did not represent his personal views.
He told the senators that he had "no grand unifying theory" and would approach his job as judge on "case-by-case basis." He presented himself as someone with great respect for precedent, which might help allay GOP concerns that Obama will try to reshape the court with "judicial activists."
The D.C. circuit is considered the second most influential court in the country, behind the Supreme Court, and often serves as a feeder for the top court. Four Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, served on the D.C. circuit.
Srinivasan is one of two people Obama has nominated for the appeals court. The other, Caitlin Halligan, withdrew her nomination after it was blocked by Republicans who claimed she was a judicial activist who didn't follow strict interpretations of the Constitution. Obama has yet to get a judge named to the court.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., complained about the "shameful treatment" that Halligan received, and said that her opponents want to see the D.C Circuit empty until they can get people to their liking on it.
"The hard right wants to use the D.C. Circuit to undo" a host of government decisions on issues such as environmental protection and financial regulation, he said.
The court is considered influential because it hears so many cases challenging the legitimacy of federal laws and regulations. In a recent high-profile case, the court invalidated Obama's recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, ruling that Obama violated the Constitution when he bypassed the Senate to fill vacancies. The White House, which plans to appeal to the Supreme Court, says the ruling runs contrary to more than 150 years of practice and would invalidate hundreds of recess appointments in Democratic and Republican administrations.
The Obama administration hopes that the bipartisan credentials of Srinivasan, who was born in India and raised in Lawrence, Kan., will help get him win confirmation. Srinivasan served as assistant to the solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, and clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, an appointee of Republican President Ronald Reagan. Last week, a dozen lawyers who represented the federal government before the Supreme Court under both parties urged that he be confirmed.
"Sri has a first-rate intellect, an open-minded approach to the law, a strong work ethic, and an unimpeachable character," the lawyers wrote in a letter to the Judiciary Committee. Among the signers were Paul Clement and Theodore B. Olson, solicitors general under George W. Bush, and Kenneth Starr, solicitor general under George H.W. Bush.
The Obama administration has made a big push for Srinivasan. Last week, White House spokesman Jay Carney urged the Senate to approve the nomination. This week, he complained about the overall pace of confirmation votes for judicial nominees.