Politics & Government

Obama pushes to diversify federal courts, but it's a slow process

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is appointing women and minorities to federal judgeships at an unprecedented rate, and nowhere is the evidence more clear than in the Golden State.

If she can make it through a logjam of judicial nominees in the U.S. Senate, Kimberly Mueller will make history, becoming the first woman to win a federal district court judgeship in Sacramento.

She's among many firsts: Last week, Lucy Koh in California's Northern District became the nation's first Korean-American district court judge; and in December Dolly Gee was confirmed in the state's Central District as the first Chinese-American federal district court judge in the country.

Other minority nominees are pending: Edward Davila would become the only current Latino judge in the Northern District; and Goodwin Liu of San Francisco would become the nation's first Taiwanese-American federal appellate court judge.

But with the Senate at loggerheads over judicial nominees, it's a long waiting game for many of the nontraditional nominees — and a source of frustration for their advocates.

Critics say that women and minorities are disproportionately hurt by the slow process.

"Look at who's in the queue — it's our people," said Edwin Prather, president of the Asian Pacific Bar of California.

Obama already has done more to diversify the Supreme Court than any other president by choosing two women for the high court. And his first choice, Sonia Sotomayor, is the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court.

So far, only 31 of Obama's 72 district and appellate nominees have been confirmed, even though there are an estimated 100 vacancies around the country.

Of Obama's nominees, 43 percent are women and minorities, a much higher rate than any of his predecessors, according to an analysis by Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington.

"It's really extraordinary what he's doing," said Sheldon Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who has studied the issue for decades. "This marks tremendous progress. It demonstrates that these barriers have come down. ... President Clinton once said the bench should be more what America looks like."

Goldman, who has written extensively on the subject, said the appointments are particularly impressive because of the high level of discrimination that characterized the legal profession for decades. He noted that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor could not even land a job as an attorney after graduating from law school but was offered a job as a legal secretary instead.

Consider the change in recent years: Of the 322 judges nominated and confirmed during George W. Bush's presidency, 18 percent were minorities, and 22 percent were females; and of the 372 judges nominated and confirmed during President Bill Clinton's two terms in office, 25 percent were minorities, and 29 percent were women.

In California, both of the state's senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, make recommendations to Obama on who should fill judicial slots. Boxer said she has been recommending candidates who "reflect California's rich diversity." Since Obama became president, she has recommended five people who were nominated: Mueller, Koh, Gee, Davila and Anthony Battaglia in the state's Southern District. That's two Asian-American women, one Latino man, one white woman and one white man. During Clinton's presidency, 14 people — including eight women and minorities — recommended by Boxer became district court judges: four women, one African-American, two Asian Americans and one Latino.

In the latest sign of easing the logjam on Capitol Hill, the Senate on Monday confirmed three of Obama's appointees: Tanya Walton Pratt, who became the first African-American federal judge in Indiana history; Brian Jackson, who became the second African-American judge to serve on the district court in the Middle District of Louisiana; and Elizabeth Erny Foote, who won a seat to the district court for the Western District of Louisiana.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont used the votes to tell his colleagues that Republicans are to blame for holding up so many of the nominees.

"There is no excuse and no reason for these months of delay. ... This stalling and obstruction is unprecedented," Leahy said.

Senate Republicans say it's important to move slowly and examine the nominees carefully because they serve for life. Also, the Judiciary Committee has been particularly busy this year, dealing with two of Obama's Supreme Court nominations.

Some say that practical politics are at work: Democrats and Republicans alike take their time in confirming judges when the appointees are made by a president of the opposing party, as was evidenced during both the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies.

"The impetus behind slowing down confirmations is simply to leave as many seats open for the next president to fill," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice. She said that adding more women and minorities to the bench is important because "it will only enhance the confidence that all Americans will have in our judiciary."

Leahy said the judicial vacancies have created a tremendous backlog of cases. Judges complain that they're overworked and that civil cases often languish for years. Some courts, including the Eastern District in Sacramento, have had to bring in judges from other states to help ease the growing burden in recent years.

Goldman, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor, suggested the situation might improve if Obama, in a show of bipartisanship, would join forces with Clinton, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush to urge the Senate to stop using filibusters and secret holds to stall judicial appointments.

"It's not worthy of the U.S. Senate, and it's doing harm," he said. "It is very dysfunctional for the independence and integrity of the judiciary. It's a very dangerous game they've been playing, and it really should stop."