By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican senators on Wednesday accused President Barack Obama of trying to stack an influential U.S. appeals court with friendly judges in the hope they would approve forthcoming federal regulations.
In June, Obama named three lawyers to serve as judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which often weighs industry challenges to regulations issued by such agencies as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Wednesday's hearing was for Patricia Millett, a Washington lawyer in private practice who has argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, said Obama wants more Democratic-appointed judges on the court as he focuses on issuing regulations, including closely watched rules addressing climate change, which will almost certainly be subject to legal challenges that will be heard by the court.
The president is hoping to "stack the deck to his advantage," Lee said.
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz adopted a similar line, saying the White House is trying to "pack the court."
Senate Republicans acknowledged that Millett had strong credentials but said there was no need for additional judges on the court because the case load was not sufficiently high. The court currently has eight active judges, equally divided between Republican and Democratic appointees. The court has 11 judgeships in total but all the positions have not be filled since a brief period in 2005 when Republican George W. Bush was president. At that point, Republicans controlled the White House and Senate and Democrats said the court did not need additional judges.
The senior Republican on the committee, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, has introduced legislation that would strip the court of the three vacant seats, saying they are not needed.
There was no criticism of Millett herself. Since 2007 she has been a partner at the Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld law firm, working on a wide range of appeals court and Supreme Court cases, mainly representing businesses. Prior to that, she spent 11 years at the Justice Department's Office of the Solicitor General, working during Republican and Democratic administrations.
New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer described her as a "lawyer's lawyer." He disputed the Republican senators' calculation of the court's case load, saying it was higher than they claimed.
The other two nominees Obama announced were Cornelia Pillard, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and Robert Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The committee has yet to schedule hearings for Pillard and Wilkins.
A seat on the federal appeals court in Washington, given its weighty role in public affairs, is sometimes seen as a springboard to serving on the Supreme Court. Appointments to both are for life.
In announcing his picks in the Rose Garden in June, Obama dismissed assertions that filling the three vacant seats constituted "court-packing," a term used to describe President Franklin Roosevelt's effort decades ago to move the court to the left ideologically by increasing the number of seats on the Supreme Court.
The president has had to fight to get his nominees to the court through the confirmation process. While Obama's fellow Democrats control the Senate, Republicans can hold up confirmation votes with procedural obstacles that require a supermajority of 60 of the 100 votes to be surmounted.
One previous nominee, New York lawyer Caitlin Halligan, withdrew from consideration in March after Republicans blocked votes on her confirmation to the appeals court.
In May, the Senate confirmed another nominee, Sri Srinivasan, who attracted bipartisan support in part due to his service in the Justice Department under both Republican and Democratic presidents.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)