Rising judicial star Sri Srinivasan is playmaker with all the right legal moves

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 23, 2013 


Principal Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan has been nominated to U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.


— Sri Srinivasan scores big on every court.

As a standout basketball guard for Lawrence High School in Kansas, class of 1985, Srinivasan could both dish and shoot. As an attorney, he’s argued more than 20 cases before the Supreme Court. And as a newly unanimously confirmed appellate judge, he’s joining what’s often called the nation’s second-highest court.

“I’m bursting with pride,” said Deanell Reece Tacha, a retired federal appellate judge from Kansas who’s known the Srinivasan family for several decades. “He’s just one of those people you love to be around.”

With his Senate confirmation Thursday by 97-0, Srinivasan will become the first South Asian federal appellate judge. The achievement stands on its own for the native of Chandigarh, India. But at 46, Srinivasan is also young enough to incite speculation about his future, as well.

It’s no coincidence that four of the Supreme Court’s nine justices got their judicial start, like Srinivasan, on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

With his addition, the court has eight active judges and three long-standing vacancies. The decisions that Srinivasan could start rendering soon are particularly important, as the court handles many cases that involve federal government agency actions.

“I always hoped he would go to the bench,” said Tacha, who served 25 years on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “He has all the right attributes: a great intellect, a good sense of the practical effect of the law, an amazing grasp of the longer-term implications of decisions and a just plain Kansas good-guy grip on the law and how it plays out.”

Tacha, who’s now the dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law, in Malibu, Calif., was on the faculty of the University of Kansas School of Law in the early 1980s, when Srinivasan’s father taught math at the school. She knew the younger Srinivasan both as an academic star and as a playmaking point guard on what she recalled as an “amazing Lawrence High team.” That team also included future KU standout and NBA forward Danny Manning, who’s now the head basketball coach at the University of Tulsa.

“Sri was a really good player,” Manning recalled Thursday. “He was an all-around threat: good dribbler, nice jump shot and pretty quick. He was very dedicated to working on his game to continue to get better.”

Srinivasan went on to graduate from Stanford University, and then earned a law degree and MBA from the school. He made points everywhere he went, as when he worked a summer at the prominent Kansas City, Mo., law firm then known as Stinson, Mag & Fizzell.

“Even in a short exposure, we were very clear that Sri had a very high ceiling,” recalled attorney Dan Crabtree, a partner in the firm, now known as Stinson Morrison Hecker. “But what I remember most about Sri was the well-rounded person. He had these knock-you-over academic credentials, but he was a regular guy.”

As a player in the firm’s regular Friday night pickup basketball games, Crabtree said Srinivasan was an “unselfish teammate” who was refreshingly “reluctant to call a foul on the guy guarding him.”

Srinivasan’s legal career has toggled between private practice and government service. He’s been serving as the principal deputy solicitor general, the same key position once held by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who also served on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals before ascending to the Supreme Court.

As number two in the office, behind Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Srinivasan has often pressed the Obama administration’s case, but his advocacy cannot be easily typecast.

He also served in the office during the administration of President George W. Bush. In 2003, for instance, Srinivasan argued in support of the arrest of a front-seat automobile passenger for possession of drugs found in the backseat.

In private practice in 2010, he argued against the so-called “honest services fraud” statute used to convict former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling.

In both cases, the Supreme Court unanimously sided with Srinivasan’s position. He rejoined the Solicitor General’s Office after President Barack Obama was elected, and he argued last year on behalf of two Secret Service agents sued by a protester who was arrested after making anti-war statements to former Vice President Dick Cheney. In that case, too, the court unanimously sided with Srinivasan.

“I don’t have an overarching, grand unified judicial philosophy that I would bring with me to the bench,” Srinivasan told the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing April 10. “I approach it in some sense in the position of a litigator. . . . It’s a case-by-case approach.”

He does have some political credentials, having volunteered his services in 2000 to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore during the protracted conflict over Florida ballot-counting. He once wrote an article blasting a voter identification law pushed by Indiana Republican legislators, and he's contributed $6,500 to several Democratic candidates and campaigns since 2000.

However, he’s also represented some of the world’s biggest companies at times. That’s bothered some liberals.

An advocacy group called EarthRights International, citing Srinivasan’s private-practice work for “powerful multinational corporations” such as Exxon Mobil, was among the few to criticize his nomination. The 90-minute confirmation hearing, though, presented few, if any, tough questions, itself a remarkable feat, given the combination of conflict and foot-dragging common to appellate court nominations.

Srinivasan’s approach during the hearing was, like his performance at oral argument, conversational rather than confrontational.

He eschews oratorical flourishes. He can sound quite relaxed; respectful, yes, but always as if he’s talking to his peers.

“Were you done with your answer to Justice (Sonia) Sotomayor’s hypothetical?” Roberts asked Srinivasan during one typically busy oral argument before the high court.

“I don’t know that I, in fact, started the answer,” Srinivasan replied, prompting laughter.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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