WASHINGTON — President Obama, who has seen court nominees run into Republican roadblocks, may have found a winning strategy for putting a judge on the powerful U.S. appeals court here: He chose a highly regarded corporate lawyer whose resume suggests he could have been a Republican nominee.
Sri Srinivasan, 46, was a law clerk for two Republican-appointed judges after graduating from Stanford University, and he worked in the George W. Bush Justice Department for five years before joining the Obama team as deputy U.S. solicitor general.
In private practice, he went before the Supreme Court seeking a new trial for Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former Enron chief executive imprisoned for engineering a fraud, and defended several multinational corporations sued for their role in human rights abuses abroad.
The White House has been making an all-out push to win Senate confirmation, noting Srinivasan is supported by equal numbers of conservative and liberal lawyers who have led the solicitor general’s office in the past.
And unlike other Obama nominees, he appears headed for an easy confirmation. The Senate Judiciary Committee took up his nomination Wednesday, and both Democrats and Republicans praised him as extremely talented, even-tempered and modest.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), an outspoken conservative who has battled with Obama administration officials, said he had known Srinivasan since they were law clerks on the U.S. appeals court in Virginia. Both were later law clerks at the Supreme Court: Cruz for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Srinivasan for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
“I am hopeful that our friendship will not be seen as a strike against you,” Cruz said at the hearing.
If confirmed, Srinivasan would be the first Obama-appointed judge on the conservative-leaning D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which decides regulatory cases on matters as varied as environmental protection, workers’ rights and corporate governance, and hears appeals from Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
He would also be the first South Asian native to serve on a U.S. appeals court. Srinivasan was born in India but grew up in Lawrence, Kan., where his parents taught at the University of Kansas.
Srinivasan also could be a leading candidate for the Supreme Court if Obama gets to fill a vacancy in his second term. Four of the nine current justices were promoted from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has four vacancies.
“He’s a great listener, and he’s open-minded. He takes people’s arguments seriously,” said Walter Dellinger, a solicitor general during the Clinton administration and a former law partner who has championed the nomination. That explains why Srinivasan has such broad support and why he will make a good judge, Dellinger said.
Obama’s earlier nominee to the D.C. Circuit, New York lawyer Caitlin Halligan, was strongly supported by Democrats and liberal interest groups, but the Republican minority blocked a vote to confirm her. She withdrew last month.
Although Srinivasan has bipartisan appeal, his nomination has inspired little enthusiasm from the left. Liberal activists, unions and human rights groups refused to support him. Most of them say they decided to remain silent, not wanting to upset the White House or stand in the way of an Obama nominee.
Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, said Srinivasan had shown himself to be an impressive lawyer in his arguments before the Supreme Court. “But I don’t have a sense of his personal beliefs about constitutional issues,” he added.
Two weeks ago, Srinivasan represented the Obama administration in one of the two gay marriage cases before the Supreme Court, but not to argue that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. Instead, he was assigned to deal with the procedural questions that arose when the administration opted not to defend the law.
The strongest opposition to Srinivasan has come from human rights advocates who have sued multinational corporations.
Marco Simons, legal director for Earth Rights International, wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee complaining of Srinivasan’s “propensity for pro-corporate, anti-human rights judicial activism.” As a lawyer in Washington, Srinivasan has “built a practice around defending powerful multinational companies against allegations of human rights abuses such as war crimes, torture and summary execution,” Simons wrote.
Srinivasan is hardly the only lawyer who has represented major companies in these cases, and he argued that the lawsuits should be thrown out because the alleged abuses took place outside the United States. The issue is pending before the Supreme Court.
Simons said he found it troubling that the Obama White House would choose a judge willing to “undermine legal accountability for corporate wrongdoing.”
“The new definition of a consensus nominee is someone who the Republicans like and the Democrats can stomach because they don’t want to defy the president,” he said.