Obama launches effort to reshape key federal bench

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama will soon name three nominees as a group to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, according to a Democrat briefed on the matter who asked not to be identified, marking a new stage in the partisan battle over judicial nominations.

Mr. Obama is also preparing to nominate former Bush administration Justice official James Comey to head the FBI, people familiar with the decision said Wednesday.

Three people with knowledge of the selection said Mr. Obama planned to nominate Mr. Comey, who was the No. 2 in President George W. Bush's Justice Department. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the selection ahead of Mr. Obama's nomination. The selection, first reported by NPR, was not expected to be announced for several days at least.

Mr. Comey led the Justice Department's corporate fraud task force and spurred creation of violent crime impact teams in 20 cities, focusing on crimes committed with guns.

He became a hero to Democratic foes of Mr. Bush's warrantless wiretapping program when Mr. Comey refused for a time to reauthorize it. Mr. Bush revised the surveillance program when confronted with the threat of resignation by Mr. Comey and current FBI Director Robert Mueller, who is stepping down in September. Mr. Comey was deputy attorney general in 2005 when he unsuccessfully tried to limit tough interrogation tactics against suspected terrorists. He told then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that some of the practices were wrong and would damage the department's reputation.

Earlier in his career, Mr. Comey served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, one of the nation's most prominent prosecutorial offices and one at the front lines of terrorism, corporate malfeasance, organized crime and the war on drugs. Prior to that, as an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, he handled the investigation of the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 U.S. military personnel.

The decision to push aggressively to fill the three remaining vacancies on the D.C. appeals bench, one of the nation's most powerful courts, comes after the Senate last week confirmed Justice Department official Sri Srinivasan to sit on the court. The unanimous vote in favor of Mr. Srinivasan's appointment marked the first time since 2006 that the Senate has approved a presidential nominee to the D.C. Circuit. The D.C. court holds enormous sway because it rules on a range of domestic policies, from curbing greenhouse gases linked to climate change to providing warning labels for cigarettes.

Republicans have suggested shrinking the number of seats on the court from 11 to 8 as a way of limiting Mr. Obama's power. "Packing the D.C. Circuit with three Obama nominees, as the Senate Democratic leaders have said they are doing because the rulings aren't going their way, cannot make up for the other 52 vacancies in courts that have a higher workload," Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Republican, said in a statement Tuesday. "It's pretty clear the president wants a court that will rubber stamp his agenda."

White House officials have challenged the GOP proposal. In a blog post published Wednesday, Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer called the plan to cut back on D.C. Circuit Court seats "a blatant attempt to shrink President Obama's constitutional authority to fill this court."

The president has yet to select which three individuals he will propose for the vacancies, according to the Democrat, who asked not to be identified because the decision is under review. Possible candidates include veteran appellate lawyers David Frederick and Patricia Millett, Georgetown University Law Center professor Cornelia Pillard and Robert Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Mr. Obama has faced fierce resistance to some of his judicial nominees, including New York lawyer Caitlin Halligan, whom the president had previously nominated to the D.C. Circuit. The president withdrew Ms. Halligan's name in March.

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Associated Press contributed.


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