The Bush administration is strongly considering nominating veteran Republican Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl for highly coveted seats on the federal appeals court based in San Francisco, according to political and legal sources.
The staunchly conservative Cox, 48, is an honors graduate of Harvard Law School and clerked for Judge Herbert Y.C. Choy on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Honolulu upon completion of law school.
Kuhl, also 48, is an honors graduate of Duke Law School and clerked for Judge Anthony M. Kennedy on the 9th Circuit, before Kennedy was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Washington sources said the FBI had begun the standard background check for judicial nominees on Cox, with one adding that his nomination was a “done deal.”
Cox’s office declined to comment. One of Kuhl’s court clerks said she was on vacation and not reachable.
However, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has been notified by the White House counsel’s office that Cox and Kuhl are under strong consideration for 9th Circuit judgeships. The outspokenly liberal Boxer was critical of the prospect that Cox would be given a seat on the powerful court.
California’s other Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, declined to comment because Cox “has not been nominated yet.”
White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, head of the administration’s judicial appointments committee, said he would have no comment “until the president is ready to make an announcement.” The Bush administration has been actively reviewing possible candidates for federal judgeships around the nation but has made no nominations thus far.
The 9th Circuit is the nation’s largest appeals court with jurisdiction over nine Western states, including California. In addition to San Francisco, the 9th Circuit has a large courthouse in Pasadena and also holds hearings regularly in Seattle, Portland, Honolulu and Anchorage.
There are three vacancies on the 9th Circuit and two of the positions are expected to go to Californians. The third slot is expected to go to a Hawaiian resident and so far, sources said the leading candidate is Honolulu attorney Richard R. Clifton, 50, who clerked for Choy after graduating from Yale Law School and has been the lawyer for the Republican Party in Hawaii.
Cox has been a trusted member of the House leadership since the GOP took control in 1995. He was mentioned earlier this year as a candidate for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, but it was one of several possible moves in his political career that failed to materialize. On two occasions, Cox considered running for the Senate but backed out, as he did in late 1998 after initially pursuing a campaign to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House.
Cox’s departure would leave open his congressional seat, which GOP leaders were confident would remain Republican if a special election were held. “That seat is as Republican as they come,” said one senior House aide.
A senior Republican House aide said that one possible candidate to fill that post should Cox be named to the bench is former Republican Rep. James Rogan, who lost his seat to Adam Schiff last November in the increasingly Democratic Glendale district and is currently living in the Washington D.C. area.
Cox, who speaks Russian and for several years published an English translation of Pravda, is considered one of the intellectual leaders among House Republicans. He graduated from USC in three years, then earned degrees from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.
After clerking for Choy in Honolulu, Cox returned to California in 1978 and practiced law for eight years in the Orange County office of Latham & Watkins, one of the state’s largest law firms.
In the mid-1980s he went East again, working for two years on the White House Counsel’s staff in the Reagan administration. When incumbent congressman Robert E. Badham decided to retire in 1988, Cox jumped into the Orange County race and was elected, with the support of Iran-Contra figure Oliver North and former federal appeals court judge Robert Bork, among others.
In 1999, Cox received a 95% rating from the American Conservative Union in 1999 and a zero from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Similarly, he got a 100% ranking from the National Right to Life Committee and a zero from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Cox got a 93% from the National Federation of Independent Business but only an 8% from the Consumer Federation of America.
Referring to these rankings, Boxer said she was “surprised that President Bush would consider someone so far outside the mainstream when he had promised to govern from the middle, especially when there are so many well-qualified moderate Republican candidates out there.”
Boxer offered no comment on Kuhl, a St. Louis native who came to California to clerk for Kennedy and then moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to join the law firm now called Munger, Tolles & Olson.
After three years specializing in corporate law, Kuhl moved to Washington and became a special assistant to then Atty. Gen. William French Smith in the Reagan administration. A year later, she moved to the Justice Department’s civil division and spent three years there. Then, in 1985, she moved to the solicitor general’s office and argued four cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, winning two.
Kuhl returned to Munger Tolles in 1986 as a partner and stayed there for nine years, doing a wide range of litigation and appellate work, until she was nominated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court by then Gov. Pete Wilson in 1995.
Kuhl has been a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group that is favored by the Bush administration. She is an active Republican, having contributed several times to Wilson’s gubernatorial campaigns and to the gubernatorial campaign of Dan Lungren.
Kuhl has served on the criminal and civil benches and is one of six judges specializing in complex civil cases.
Ronald L. Olson, the senior partner at the Los Angeles law firm where Kuhl used to work, praised her as “bright and hard-working. She has all the qualities to make a great judge.”
Weinstein reported from Los Angeles; Fiore reported from Washington.