President Obama

  • June 7, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Victor Williams, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, Columbus School of Law, Catholic University of America

    President Barack Obama engaged in welcome “audacity of hope” when he named three stellar lawyers to the D.C. Circuit, even as his own lawyers were busy taking the court’s Noel Canning ruling to the Supreme Court. Each of his judicial picks -- Patricia Ann Millett, Cornelia Pillard and Robert Leon Wilkins -- built a sterling record since graduating from Harvard Law. Each is a perfect fit for, and transformative addition to, the nation’s second highest court. 

    Obama accurately describes the court as having a unique national jurisdiction and “final say” responsibility. In a 2006 essay, “What Makes the D.C. Circuit Different,” John Roberts explained: “Whatever combination of letters you can put together, it is likely that jurisdiction to review that agency’s decision is vested in the D.C. Circuit.”  Supreme Court nominees are often drawn from the D.C. Circuit; indeed, one of the three vacancies that Obama seeks to fill has been empty since Circuit Judge John Roberts rose to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Having battled unprecedented partisan confirmation obstruction for the entirety of his tenure, PresidentObama also took opportunity at the Rose Garden announcement to make the case against Senate delay and procedural hurdles. He spoke about past nominees -- of both parties -- unfairly worn down by obstructionist delay. Assertive, while not combative, Obama simply asked the Senate minority not to block up-or-down confirmation votes: “What I am doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.”  

    Republicans Jump the Obstructionist Shark; Noel Canning May Backfire 

    Senate Republicans predictably responded by doubling down on obstruction. Absurdly shouting “court packing” and “intimidation,” the Senate minority quickly launched its campaign of obstruction. The D.C. Circuit’s bench status quo is exactly what the GOP wants; the court’s opinion in Noel Canning v. NLRB serves as best evidence.  The radical ruling nullified the independent labor agency’s legal authority and challenged the legitimacy of over 500 intersession recess appointed officials and judges. Unknown-thousands of acts and judgments by recess appointed officials were tainted as ultra vires. As I argued in the National Law Journal, the congressional pro forma scheduling shenanigans of the past years pale in comparison to the D.C. Circuit panel’s interpretive gimmickry. The ruling rejects 150 years of accepted appointment practice and threatens exponential chaos in regulatory law. 

  • June 6, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Obama administration, obsessed with leaks of secret government actions, is likely seething over reporting by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Spencer Ackerman on the secretive order granting the federal government sweeping power to collect “telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon,” regardless of any suspected connection to terrorist groups or activities.

    The report reveals an order from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court -- created by the Foreign Intellegince Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) -- granting power to the even more secretive National Security Agency to collect phone data over a three-month period. As The Guardian reporters and others note we have no idea if the FISA Court order is one in a series of orders granting the NSA ability to collect the information.

    Salon’s Alex Pareene notes that the nation’s intelligence agencies have continued to amass power for decades. Both parties and presidents have done nothing to rein in the NSA. “While the fact the NSA has the power to do this has been public for some time, we’ve never seen, until the Guardian obtained one, an actual Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant. They are very top secret. Someone will probably be prosecuted for leaking this one. That, in fact, is one of the primary issues civil libertarians, like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been raising: If the way the administration interprets the law is secret, the law itself is effectively secret. Now we know more. But the recent history of the U.S. and domestic surveillance suggests knowing more won’t lead to doing anything about it.”

    The ACLU and other civil liberty groups and a few Senate Democrats have tried to raise concern over the unwieldy and largely unaccountable intelligence apparatus. In a June 5 press statement, the ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said, “From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents. It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of the unaccountable intelligence agencies.”

    In a piece for Cato at Liberty, Jim Harper looks at the indifference Americans have toward the FISA Court and the power of the nation’s intelligence apparatus. He notes that last summer and then in late December Congress reauthorized, expanded FISA powers for another five years, “continuing the government’s authority to collect data like this under secret court orders.” One of the staunchest supporters of expanding FISA powers was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

  • June 4, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama is not shying away from a high-profile nominations battle with the U.S. Senate’s rabid obstructionists. In announcing today three nominations to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the president is taking on senators, such as Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who have mounted a concerted effort to block him from bringing balance to the D.C. Circuit, which currently has a strong rightward tilt.

    Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is arguing that the D.C. Circuit, which hears myriad cases involving weighty constitutional issues, has enough judges and does not need anymore. He is pushing a bill to chop the number of seats on the 11-member Court to eight. The bill has little chance of enactment because it likely could not pass the Senate. But that’s not the point. The point, as Judith Schaeffer of the Constitutional Accountability Center has noted, is to provide cover for Grassley’s partners in obstruction. The obstructionists will have difficulty arguing that the president’s nominees are ideological extremists, but they will take Grassley’s line that the D.C. Circuit has plenty of judges for its caseload.

    But Grassley is pushing an outrageously ludicrous line, one that’s also laden with hypocrisy. Grassley had no problem helping Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush place judges on the D.C. Circuit, which included the far right Judge Janice Rogers Brown.

    Patricia Wald, who served on the D.C. Circuit for 20 years, including five as its chief judge, wrote earlier this year that the Court hears some of the weightiest and time-consuming constitutional and national security cases of any of the federal appeals court circuits. She also noted that the D.C. Circuit’s caseload has grown since G.W. Bush’s administration, when Grassley was striving to confirm nominations to that bench. “The number of pending cases per judge has grown from 119 in 2005 to 188 today,” she wrote.

    In announcing nominations for the D.C. Circuit’s three vacant seats, Obama noted his responsibility in nominating “qualified men and women to serve as judges” and Congress’s responsibility in the matter. Congress has a “constitutional duty to promptly consider judicial nominees for confirmation.” The president nominated Patricia Ann Millett, a longtime appellate attorney, Nina Pillard, a law professor at Georgetown Law Center and Judge Robert Wilkins, who is serving on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. 

    Obama noted that during his first term senators too often failed to provide consideration of his nominees. Indeed, despite what mainstream reporters would have us believe, the battle over judicial nominations has only gotten more pitched during Obama’s presidency. Vacancies on the bench spiked during his first term and have remained hovering around 80 since.

  • June 3, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    ACS President Caroline Fredrickson provided context to the discussion over Senate Republicans’ efforts to scuttle President Obama’s judicial nominations, in particular focusing on the three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

    During a June 2 segment on MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry” show, Fredrickson said Americans should understand that a “vast majority” of high-profile and constitutional weighty cases have to be heard by the D.C. Circuit.

    “Major cases involving regulations” of our health care system, environment, and workers’ rights are heard by the Court, as well as major national security cases and voting rights cases. The majority of such cases are “required to go to the D.C. Circuit,” meaning the Court is one of the more powerful in the country, she said. And as noted on this blog frequently Senate Republicans, especially Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), are bent on keeping the president from making a lasting imprint on the D.C. Circuit. For instance, Grassley is pushing a bill to cut the 11-member court to eight seats thereby preventing Obama from placing any more judges on that court. (Recently the Senate confirmed Obama’s nomination of Sri Srinivasan to a seat on the D.C. Circuit, after twice blocking the president’s initial nomination to the Court.)

    Fredrickson noted that when George W. Bush was president Grassley had no complaints about the number of seats on the D.C. Circuit, instead strongly supporting the president’s constitutional duty to fill vacancies on the federal bench. Fredrickson noted that Grassley and other Republicans “fought like hell to get George Bush’s nominees on the D.C. Circuit when the caseload was not only lower, but they wanted to go right up to the 11th seat and now they say eight is plenty.”

    Fredrickson and the other panelists, including the Alliance for Justice’s Nan Aron, also touched upon discussion in the Senate to alter the filibuster to make it more transparent and a bit more difficult for the obstructionists to abuse. Part of the reason for renewed interest in reforming the filibuster is that Senate Republicans are showing no signs of making it any easier for the president to fill judicial vacancies and some executive branch vacancies.

    See the entire segment below or visit this link.

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  • May 30, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama’s address to the National Defense University was quickly embraced by many high-profile pundits as evidence the 44th president would actually and finally offer change one could believe in. Specifically, change from the way his predecessor presided over a never-ending war on terror.

    As noted here, during his May 23 speech the president provided some lofty rhetoric suggesting significant change was underway to counter intensifying criticism from civil libertarians and human rights advocates that the Obama administration is trampling fundamental constitutional principles and values while waging the so-called war on terror.

    The New York Times editorial board lauded Obama’s speech as “the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post 9/11 America. For the first time a president stated clearly and equivocally the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.”

    Many other pundits also heralded the speech as a major shift in policy, while others, such as Alex Pareene warned that those concerned about human rights and civil liberties would likely be seriously disappointed.

    Today, The Times reported that Pakistani officials said a CIA drone strike had supposedly “killed a top member of the Pakistani Taliban, an attack that illustrated the continued murkiness of the rules that govern the United States’ targeted killing operations.” Before his much-trumpeted counterterrorism speech, The Times reported that the administration would start shifting control of the drone strikes from the CIA to the military.

    Obama’s speech received a lukewarm response from the ACLU, which has fought to obtain more information about the administration’s drone warfare. This blog also noted that a mere speech without action would not squelch criticism of counterterrorism efforts that violate U.S. and international law. The president declared early in his first term that we must protect fundamental values, such as due process under the law, as vigilantly as we wage war against terrorists. But such talk has too often proven hollow.

    In a piece for The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald scored the president for a trend of advancing rhetoric that doesn’t reflect reality. Greenwald wrote, “what should be beyond dispute at this point is that Obama’s speeches have very little to do with Obama’s actions, except to the extent that they often signal what he intends not to do. How many times does Obama have to deliver a speech embracing a set of values and policies, only to watch as he then proceeds to do the opposite, before one ceases to view his public proclamations as predictive of his future choices?”