Judge Paul J. Watford, a Southern Californian who serves on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and has won praise from conservatives and liberals, has emerged as as finalist for President Obama's nomination to the Supreme Court.
The president has narrowed his search to three appeals court judges, including Judges Sri Srinivasan and Merrick Garland, both from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, according to officials close to the process. All three have had bipartisan support in the past.
If nominated, however, any one of them is likely to run into near-unanimous opposition from Senate Republicans, who have vowed to block action on any Obama nominee to fill the seat of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Watford is the top contender from outside the Washington Beltway. If nominated and confirmed, he would be the third African American to sit on the nation's highest court.
He also would be the first justice from Southern California. Four Californians have served on the high court, dating back to Justice Stephen Field, who was appointed by Abraham Lincoln, but all of them were residents of Sacramento or the Bay Area.
Obama is expected to announce his decision as soon as this week. Even if Watford, 48, does not get the nod this time, his inclusion on the short list could make him a contender in a future Democratic White House.
When Obama nominated Watford, 48, to the 9th Circuit in 2011, he won glowing praise, including from prominent conservatives. Since then, he has won compliments from judges who serve with him.
"The bottom line is he is just really wonderful," said Appeals Court Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee.
Watford clerked for Kozinski for a year early in his career, but "I can't describe him ideologically," the judge said. "He has been my colleague for three or four years, and I can't pigeonhole him into anything. The guy is really, really smart. He is careful about applying precedent, but based on ideology, you cannot predict the guy."
USC Law Professor Rebecca Lonergan worked with Watford at the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles and later helped recruit him to teach judicial writing at the law school.
"I can't speak highly enough of him," she said Monday. "He's smart, moderate, fair-minded and an excellent writer, and you need all those things on the Supreme Court."
Two of Watford's opinions were reviewed by the Supreme Court last year. Both were affirmed.
In one case, the pastor of a small church in Gilbert, Ariz., sued because the town would not allow him to post large signs along the roadside to direct people to a Sunday service, even though large signs for political events and real estate were permitted. The 9th Circuit upheld the ordinance, but Watford dissented, arguing that sharply different treatment based on the content of the sign violated the 1st Amendment.
The Supreme Court agreed with Watford's view in June in the case of Reed vs. Town of Gilbert. The court's 6-3 opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas.
The other case came from Los Angeles. This time, Watford was in the majority, writing an opinion for the 9th Circuit that struck down a city ordinance that said the police may enter a motel and check the guest registry at any time.
The city ordinance violated the 4th Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches," Watford said, because the motel operators were given no opportunity to contest the inspections before a magistrate. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the city's appeal in Los Angeles vs. Patel, but affirmed the 9th Circuit's decision. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the opinion for a 5-4 majority.
Watford was born and raised in Orange County and has degrees from UC Berkeley and from the UCLA Law School. After clerking for Kozinski in Pasadena, he was a law clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court.
After returning to Los Angeles, he spent three years as an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting cases of fraud and white-collar crime. For the next decade, he was an appellate lawyer at Munger, Tolles & Olson.
UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, a conservative and 1st Amendment expert, was among those who praised Watford when he was nominated to the appeals court. "Paul is the sort of Democratic nominee that moderates and conservatives, as well as liberals, should solidly support," he wrote at the time. "He's extremely smart, thoughtful, reasonable and judicious."
Wylie Aitken, an Orange County trial lawyer, served on a lawyer's panel that recommended Watford's nomination to the 9th Circuit. "He's extremely bright, an outstanding scholar. And he had represented corporations at Munger, Tolles. He was very moderate, so we thought he was an ideal candidate who would appeal to Republicans and Democrats. In any other time, he should have had no difficulty being approved," he said Monday.
But even in Obama's first term, Senate Republicans stalled many of his court nominees, including Watford. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) pressed for a confirmation vote, in 2012, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), objected, saying Watford was not a "consensus nominee." He said he had concerns "regarding Mr. Watford's views on both immigration and the death penalty."
Grassley criticized Watford for working with the ACLU in a legal challenge to Arizona's strict immigration law. Not long afterward, the Supreme Court ruled for the challengers and blocked most of the law from taking effect, in effect siding with Watford.
Watford also worked on a brief that challenged the three-drug protocol used for lethal injections in the Kentucky. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected the challenge in that case.
Watford won Senate confirmation on a 61-34 vote, with the support of 52 Democrats and nine Republicans.
Grassley is now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committtee and said he will not hold hearings this year, no matter who Obama nominates for the high court.