Obama announces first judicial nomination

President Obama chose an Indiana judge with some bipartisan support for his first judicial nomination Tuesday, announcing he wanted to elevate U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

White House aides described Hamilton as a careful judge who follows the law and also shows “empathy for real people with real problems.”

They said Obama was sending a signal with this pick that he would consult Senate Republicans about his judicial nominations. “We are trying to set a tone here,” an Obama advisor told reporters in a background briefing. “We are eager to put the confirmation wars behind us.”

But within minutes of the White House announcement, a conservative legal group labeled Hamilton an “ultra-liberal” who was a “former leader of the Indiana chapter of the ACLU.”

The Judicial Confirmation Network, which rallied support for President George W. Bush’s court nominees, said Hamilton had issued “extreme rulings” -- including a decision that barred overtly Christian prayers in the Indiana Legislature and another that blocked enforcement of part of an Indiana abortion law that required pregnant women to make two trips to a clinic before having an abortion.


Hamilton said the required advance visit to hear in person a warning about the risks of abortion amounted to an “undue burden” on the woman’s right. The 7th Circuit disagreed in a 2-1 ruling in 2002, and faulted Hamilton for delaying full enforcement of the law. It said waiting periods for abortion, including an advance visit, were constitutional.

The appeals court also set aside Hamilton’s ruling on prayers in the Legislature. It said the taxpayers who sued to stop the prayers as unconstitutional had suffered no real harm, and therefore had no standing to sue.

Hamilton “is no moderate, as the Obama White House is trying to spin him,” said Wendy Long, counsel for the Judicial Confirmation Network.

Although Obama’s first nominee may not end Washington’s war over judges, Hamilton drew wide praise from lawyers and law professors in Indiana, including the president of the local Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.

“I regard Judge Hamilton as an excellent jurist with a first-rate intellect,” said Geoffrey Slaughter, a lawyer in Indianapolis. “He is unfailingly polite to lawyers. He asks tough questions to both sides, and he is very smart. His judicial philosophy is left of center, but well within the mainstream, between the 30-yard lines.”

The Federalist Society invited Hamilton to speak at its January meeting in Indianapolis, Slaughter said. In praising the judge, Slaughter said he spoke only for himself, not for the organization.

Indiana University law professor Patrick L. Baude described Hamilton as “a careful judge who genuinely cares what the law is. That makes him a ‘moderate’ in the sense that he has not pursued a political agenda.”

Daniel Conkle, an expert on church-state law at Indiana University, said the criticism of Hamilton’s ruling against sectarian prayers in the Indiana Legislature was unfair. “His opinion was extremely careful, thoughtful, balanced and well-reasoned. It was in no way hostile to religion or to religious liberty,” Conkle said.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have opposed several of Obama’s nominees to Justice Department posts, and an aide to one GOP member said Hamilton would probably face some opposition as well.

“From what I’m hearing, I don’t think he will have an easy walk,” the aide said.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said Tuesday that he “enthusiastically supports” Hamilton’s confirmation.

White House lawyers announced a break with Bush’s approach Tuesday. They said they would have the American Bar Assn. evaluate the “professional qualifications” of a prospective judge.

Since the 1950s, the ABA had screened nominees so the president would know a lawyer’s or judge’s reputation among his peers. Conservatives soured on the ABA after it gave a mixed grade in 1987 to Judge Robert H. Bork, President Reagan’s failed nominee for the Supreme Court. In 2001, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush’s first White House counsel, said his office would not consult in advance with the ABA.

Hamilton once served as counsel to then-Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh, and he was chosen as a trial judge in 1994 by President Clinton. Born in 1957, Hamilton grew up in southern Indiana, the son and grandson of Methodist ministers. He is also a nephew of former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana.

He graduated from Haverford College in 1979 and Yale Law School in 1983.