The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a confirmation hearing on Wednesday for an open spot on U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. The nominee is Srikanth Srinivasan, whose current job is Principal Deputy Solicitor General of the United States. The hearing is a big one for both Obama and Srinivasan, because as Jeffery Toobin pointed out in a breakdown of Srinivasan's record, this is basically his audition to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the next Associate Justice at the highest tribunal in the land.
But there's more at stake than just one man's possible promotion. Barack Obama's entire judicial legacy could hinge on the outcome of Srinivasan's appointment or denial. Four of the current sitting Justices at one time sat on the D.C. Circuit, but that court currently has four vacancies. The President hasn't even nominated anyone else to fill them, because Republicans in the Senate have blocked every one he's tried to put up so far. The last one withdrew her name, because the Senate wouldn't even grant her a vote.
It's a virtual certainty that President Obama will get a least one more chance to put a justice on the Supreme Court, as the 80-year-old Ginsburg is unlikely to stick around until 2016. Barring a surprise, she might be the only one to step down in next four years, and the President needs to make his next pick count.
Fortunately, Srinivasan is the ideal candidate. As a lifelong litigator, he doesn't have a complicated record of judicial rulings to haunt his testimony. He's worked in private practice and government, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. He clerked for Sandra Day O'Connor and argued numerous cases before the Supreme Court. (He handled the DOMA case just last month.) He's got personal endorsements from legal heavyweights on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide. He's only 46, he didn't go to Yale or Harvard (though he teaches at the latter), and he's a flesh-and-blood immigrant success story. There's never been a judge with South Asian heritage on a U.S. appeals court or the Supreme Court, and Srinivasan—who was born in India—could set a historic precedent.
Basically, if Obama can't get Srinivasan approved to the Appeals Court, he can't get anyone approved. And if he does get him approved for the lower court this year, how would the Senate ever be able to turn him away from Ginsburg's spot just one or two years from now? He would be a virtual lock to slide into a Supreme vacancy when the time comes. That's why the President has pushed so hard to make this hearing a good one, and lined up big endorsements for his guy.
The Catch-22, however, is that winning this fight might mean the President never gets the chance for another victory. The real danger for Obama is that he will get Srinivasan through to Appeals, and eventually the Supreme Court, but still leave office in 2017 with an empty bench of liberal judges to follow in that Justice's footsteps. A Republican rejection of Srinivasan would give the Senate Democrats a slam-dunk excuse to tear down the filibuster and spend the final two years of the Obama presidency packing the courts with liberal allies. If they let Srinivasan slide by, they'd be surrendering one battle to save the war for themselves. It would be an important battle, to be sure, but one that would allow them to continue their obstructionism on the lower court, where the Supreme Court nominees of 2017 and beyond will be made.