Paul J. Watford, a Los Angeles lawyer with broad experience and the support of some influential local conservatives, was nominated by President Obama on Monday to the busiest federal appeals court in the country.
The choice of Watford, 44, for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals drew praise from colleagues on both sides of the political aisle, and predictions that he would have a smoother path to Senate confirmation than some of the president's more liberal nominees.
The 9th Circuit has long been the most overwhelmed of the 13 federal appellate circuits and has seen its burdens mount this year with the deaths of five judges. If confirmed, Watford will fill the vacancy created when Circuit Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, 70, died of cancer on Sept. 21.
The court is authorized to have 29 active judgeships but has four vacancies, with a fifth expected at the end of the year, when one judge plans to take senior status. Obama has three pending appointments to the 9th Circuit, with Watford joining Alaska Supreme Court Justice Morgan Christen and U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Nguyen of Los Angeles in what could be a contentious and protracted confirmation process.
Obama's first nomination to the 9th Circuit, UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu, led to more than a year of political squabbling in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republicans cast him as too liberal, grilling him in confirmation hearings over his writings for the American Constitution Society and his criticism of President George W. Bush's choice of Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Republicans repeatedly blocked a confirmation vote on Liu, who withdrew from consideration this year. Gov. Jerry Brown then nominated him to the California Supreme Court, and Liu won quick confirmation.
Obama has succeeded in getting only one new jurist onto the 9th Circuit: U.S. District Judge Mary H. Murguia of Arizona.
Obama praised Watford's credentials Monday.
"Paul J. Watford has displayed exceptional dedication to the legal profession through his work, and I am honored to nominate him to serve the American people," Obama said in his announcement. "He will be a diligent, judicious and esteemed addition to the 9th Circuit bench."
Colleagues at Munger, Tolles & Olson, the Los Angeles firm where Watford is a partner, described him as a great choice and a man ideally suited to being a judge.
"He's incredibly intelligent and has solid integrity and great judgment," said Daniel Collins, who recruited Watford back to the firm after a three-year stint at the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles and a year at the rival firm of Sidley & Austin. "He just embodies the definition of judicial temperament — very level-headed and even-keeled."
Collins, who clerked for conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and was a government lawyer in both Bush administrations, said he considered Watford a moderate who would be widely admired and respected.
"I don't think he'll approach the job with any kind of agenda other than to do what is right and consistent with precedent as he understands it," Collins said.
Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who has known Watford for nearly 20 years, also expressed satisfaction.
"I'm a moderately conservative Republican who would like to see conservative judges named to the courts, but my guy lost in 2008," Volokh said. "The question is, what can we get from President Obama? There are probably nominations I wouldn't support. The best we can get is going to be someone calm and judicial and attentive to precedent. ... By all indications, Paul is going to be that kind of judge."
Jeremy Rosen, a partner at Horvitz & Levy and former president of the Los Angeles Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society, said Watford was a choice many conservatives could support.
"I know he has the respect of anyone who has come into contact with him. He is exceptionally bright and well qualified," Rosen said.
Watford, an Orange County native who earned his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and his law degree at UCLA, has a practice focused on appellate litigation. He has been active before 9th Circuit panels in his previous role as a federal prosecutor.
His ties to the appellate court go back to 1994, when he clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski, who is now chief judge of the circuit, which handles more than 12,000 cases a year from across the court's nine-state region.
Watford, who is married without children, also clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 1995-96.