WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, on Tuesday plunged into a heated dispute between Senate Republicans and the Obama administration over judicial nominations, a move that will inevitably fuel further speculation about his 2014 political ambitions.
Cotton introduced the “Stop Court Packing Act” to eliminate three positions on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on the very day that President Barack Obama nominated three judges to fill the now empty slots.
Standing with the three nominees in the Rose Garden, Obama complained that Senate Republicans, for political reasons, were blocking his nominees to the court. He also challenged Republicans for derisively asserting that he was looking to pack the court.
“For those of you who are familiar with the history of court-packing, that involved Franklin Delano Roosevelt trying to add additional seats to the Supreme Court in order to water down and get more support for his political agenda. We’re not adding seats here. We’re trying to fill seats that are already existing,” Obama said.
Obama’s comments were aimed squarely at Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who issued a statement questioning the motivation behind the anticipated nominations given the dwindling workload for the D.C. circuit.
“It’s hard to imagine the rationale for nominating three judges at once for this court given the many vacant emergency seats across the country, unless your goal is to pack the court to advance a certain policy agenda,” Grassley said.
In April, Grassley introduced the “Court Efficiency Act of 2013” with eight other Senate Republicans that would reduce, from 11 to 8, the number of circuit judges appointed to the D.C. court.
Cotton introduced his legislation, without a co-sponsor, saying that reducing the number of judges serving on the court would save taxpayers millions of dollars. He noted that the court has the lightest caseload of any federal appellate court and its docket is shrinking.
“President Obama knows these facts, so his nomination today to the D.C. Circuit are an obvious effort to pack a court that has frustrated his liberal, big-government ambitions. The D.C. Circuit has jurisdiction over regulatory agencies and it has routinely struck down the worst excesses of the Obama administration,” Cotton said.
Cotton’s entry into this political battle is unusual given that the House has no official role in nomination fights. Cotton also does not serve on the House Judiciary Committee or Appropriations Committee. This is also just the second bill that Cotton, a freshman, has introduced in Congress. The other focused on a more parochial concern — keeping air traffic towers staffed in his district in the face of sequestration.
Janine Parry, a professor of politics at the University of Arkansas, said it would make some sense to read Cotton’s actions as a signal of his intent to challenge U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., in the 2014 mid-term elections, as well as a way to burnish his image among conservative Republicans.
“This kind of thing is a way to earn the kind of stripes that guarantee a big investment in him by the Republican Party and its allies,” Parry said.
Just before Memorial Day, the Senate voted 97-0 to confirm Sri Srinvasan to serve on the court, filling one of four vacancies. Of the remaining three vacancies, one has been open since 2005 when Chief Justice John Roberts was elevated to the Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, Obama nominated U.S. District Court Judge Robert Leon Wilkins, Georgetown Law Professor Cornelia Pillard and attorney Patricia Ann Millett to fill the three vacancies.
Obama twice repeated the statistic that his nominees have needed three times longer to get confirmation votes out of the Senate than the nominees “of my Republican predecessor.”
“This is about political obstruction,” he said.
Obama also said it is an “obviously blatant political move” on the part of Senate Republicans to seek to reduce the size of the court now when he – a Democrat – is president. He noted that two months ago a judicial conference led by Justice Roberts said the current workload of the D.C. Circuit requires 11 judges.
Grassley said the statistics back his contention that the court can get by with fewer judges.
“There were nearly 200 fewer appeals filed in the D.C. Circuit in 2012 than in 2005. In fact, the amount of cases that each active judge handles is nearly the same, despite having two fewer judges, in that same time frame,” he said.
Caroline Rabbitt, a spokeswoman for Cotton, said the congressman started thinking about the legislation when Srinivasan was confirmed to the court. He plans to solicit co-sponsors for his bill, she said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that he plans to move forward with the confirmation of the three nominees “as quickly as I can.”
“It’s an important court and needs to have a full contingent of those required by statute,” Reid said.