Judging on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second most important court in the U.S., is once again back in the news.

"Sri" Srinivasan
“Sri” Srinivasan

The immediate issue is the need for the U.S. Senate to confirm President Obama’s appointment of Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan to one of the four vacancies on this Court.[1]

Srinivasan has a blue-chip resume. Currently he is the Principal Deputy Solicitor General of the U.S. and has argued 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He previously clerked for the Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He also served with distinction in the Justice Department for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and with the Washington, D.C. office of the eminent law firm of O’Melveny & Myers. A native of India, Srinivasan grew up in Kansas and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1989 from Stanford University and a J.D./M.B.A. degree in 1995 from its Law School and Graduate School of Business.

On April 10th Srinivasan had an uneventful 90-minute hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His nomination is strongly supported by the Obama Administration and by noted conservative and liberal lawyers and academics.

The next step is for the Committee to vote on whether to send this nomination to the Senate floor for a vote. At least one of the eight Republican members of the Committee, Orrin Hatch, said he was impressed and would support such a motion. Assuming all 10 Democratic Committee members support such a motion, then it should be approved by a vote of at least 11 to 7. Then the whole Senate would vote on the nomination unless there was a filibuster of same.[2]

Perhaps the partisan wrangling over appointments to this Court is overwrought.

Senior Judge David B. Sentelle
Senior Judge David B. Sentelle

Evidence for a less partisan view of this Court is found in its April 5th Presentation Ceremony of the Portrait of D.C. Circuit Senior Judge David B. Sentelle, who was appointed to the Court in 1987 by Republican President Ronald Reagan. For remarks of appreciation from his own Court, Judge Sentelle chose Circuit Judge David S. Tatel, who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994.[3]

Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel

Judge Tatel commented on the apparent oddity of his speaking for Judge Sentelle.  Tatel said, “those who believe that judges’ decisions are driven by ideology may wonder why Dave [Sentelle] asked me to speak. After all, you would be hard pressed to find two judges with more different backgrounds, different worldviews, different beliefs, and, indeed, different shoes than we two Davids. But those who focus on these differences do not understand what it means to be a federal judge, do not understand this Court’s long tradition of collegiality, and surely do not understand Dave Sentelle.”  Tatel continued, “when Judge Sentelle and I sit together, we very rarely disagree.” In “the nineteen years we’ve served together, we have disagreed less than 3% of the time.”

The answer to why there had been so little disagreement, according to Judge Tatel, was “Judge Sentelle’s decisions are driven not by personal preferences, but by a conscientious application of the principles and texts that bind us. Uncommonly peppered with the hallmarks of restrained decision-making, his opinions are full of phrases like, ‘If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter’; ‘Courts must accord substantial deference to Congress’s findings’; ‘We are bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court’; ‘One three judge panel has no authority to overrule another’; ‘We owe agency fact-finding great deference’; ‘Issues not raised on appeal are deemed waived’; and ‘Absent jurisdiction we are powerless to act.’ For Judge Sentelle, “the tenets of judicial restraint are not mere slogans to be invoked when convenient; they are the building blocks of all that we do here.”

Judge Tatel also complimented Judge Sentelle’s judicial opinions. According to Tatel, Judge Sentelle “crafts opinions that treat every one of his colleagues, as well as every citizen who appears before us, with respect and a true generosity of spirit. Flipping through his opinions, including his dissents, you’ll find no sarcasm, no belittling remarks, no callous dismissals. This is, after all, a United States Court, and Judge Sentelle’s opinions are a credit to the dignity of this institution. In his five years as our Chief Judge, Dave has protected our proudly nurtured tradition of collegiality.”

In conclusion, Judge Tatel said, Judge Sentelle is “a man who has the greatest respect for the office he holds and an abiding dedication to a life of service and the rule of law.”

[1] President Obama’s only other eminently qualified nominee to the court, Caitlin J. Halligan, was named in 2010 to fill the vacancy created by the elevation of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court. In March of this year Republicans for a second time mounted a filibuster that prevented the Senate from voting on Ms. Halligan, and President Obama granted her request to withdraw her nomination saying, “This unjustified filibuster obstructed the majority of Senators from expressing their support. I am confident that with Caitlin’s impressive qualifications and reputation, she would have served with distinction.” Her nomination was supported by the New York Times and Washington Post .

[2] If the Srinivasan nomination is filibustered , then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to modify the Senate Rules to bar such filibusters on at least judicial nominees. I frequently have voiced my strong disapproval of the filibuster rule and practice.

[3] Judge Tatel is a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of mine, and I have written a post about his opinion for the D.C. Circuit in the Voting Rights Act case now pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The D.C. Circuit’s Decision Upholding the Validity of the Voting Rights Act of 2006

On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of an important provision in the Voting Rights Act of 2006. That provision imposes a requirement in section 5 for certain states to obtain pre-clearance from a special federal court or the U.S. Attorney General for any changes in their election laws.

Before we discuss that argument, we will review the decision that was the subject of that argument: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder upholding, 2 to 1, the constitutionality of that statute and, therefore, affirming the trial court’s judgment to the same effect.[1]

Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel
Judge Thomas Griffith
Judge Thomas B. Griffith
Judge Stephen F. Williams
Judge Stephen F. Williams









The opinion for the majority in the Circuit Court was written by Judge David S. Tatel, a President Clinton appointee in 1994 and a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of mine. He was joined by Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith, an appointee of President George W. Bush in 2005, while the dissenter was Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams, an appointee in 1994 by President Reagan.

Opinion of the Circuit Court

The D.C. Circuit stressed that it was “bound by fundamental principles of judicial restraint” as repeatedly proclaimed by the U.S. Supreme Court. These precedents emphasize that “Congress’s laws are entitled to a ‘presumption of validity’” and that “when Congress acts pursuant to its enforcement authority under the Reconstruction Amendments [including the Fifteenth Amendment], its judgments about ‘what legislation is needed . . . are entitled to much deference.‘“  Such deference is paid “‘out of respect for [Congress’] . . .  authority to exercise the legislative power,’”and in recognition that Congress ”‘is far better equipped than the judiciary to amass and evaluate the vast amounts of data bearing upon legislative questions.’” (Citations omitted.)

Indeed, the Circuit Court quoted the Supreme Court’s opinion in deciding a prior case about this very statute when that Court emphasized that “judging the constitutionality of an Act of Congress is `the gravest and most delicate duty that [a court] is called on to perform,’'” and that “[t]he Fifteenth Amendment empowers `Congress,’ not the Court, to determine in the first instance what legislation is needed to enforce it.”

These long-standing principles of judicial restraint, I believe, are even more relevant and important, when Congress adds congressional findings of fact to the statute itself, as it did in the Voting Rights Act of 2006.

The D.C. Circuit then addressed the two concerns or questions about the Voting Rights Act of 2006 that the Supreme Court had raised in the Northwest Austin case.

First, are the current burdens imposed by section 5 “justified by current needs”?

Even though there has been significant progress in combatting racial discrimination in voting, the D.C. Circuit stressed that “Congress [had] found that this progress did not tell the whole story.

It documented ‘continued registration and turnout disparities’ in both Virginia and South Carolina.” In addition, “although the number of African Americans holding elected office had increased significantly, they continued to face barriers to election for statewide positions. Congress found that not one African American had yet been elected to statewide office in Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina. In other covered states, “`often it is only after blacks have been first appointed to a vacancy that they are able to win statewide office as incumbents.'”

The D.C. Circuit also noted that “Congress considered other types of evidence that, in its judgment, ‘show[ed] that attempts to discriminate persist and evolve, such that Section 5 is still needed to protect minority voters in the future.’  It heard accounts of specific instances of racial discrimination in voting. It heard analysis and opinions by experts on all sides of the issue.”

Congress considered six distinct categories of evidence, according to the D.C. Circuit: “(1) [U.S.] Attorney General objections issued to block proposed voting changes that would, in the Attorney General’s judgment, have the purpose or effect of discriminating against minorities; (2) ‘more information requests’ issued when the Attorney General believes that the information submitted by a covered jurisdiction is insufficient to allow a preclearance determination; (3) successful lawsuits brought under section 2 of the Act; (4) federal observers dispatched to monitor elections under section 8 of the Act; (5) successful section 5 enforcement actions filed against covered jurisdictions for failing to submit voting changes for preclearance, as well as requests for preclearance denied by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia; and (6) evidence that the mere existence of section 5 deters officials from even proposing discriminatory voting changes.”

Finally, said the D.C. Circuit, “Congress heard evidence that case-by-case section 2 litigation was inadequate to remedy the racial discrimination in voting that persisted in covered jurisdictions.”

The Circuit court then carefully reviewed the legislative record and concluded that it contained “sufficient probative evidence from which Congress could reasonably conclude that racial discrimination in voting in covered jurisdictions is so serious and pervasive that section 2 litigation remains an inadequate remedy.”

Second, does the congressional record support the requisite ‘showing that the statute’s disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets?

In addressing this issue, the Circuit court emphasized that the statute’s disparate geographic coverage depended not only on section 4(b)’s formula, but on the statute as a whole, including its mechanisms for bail-in and bailout. Therefore, for this court the question was whether the statute as a whole, not just the section 4(b) formula, ensures that jurisdictions subject to section 5 are those in which unconstitutional voting discrimination is concentrated.

After reviewing in detail the congressional record on this issue and the total structure of the statute, including bailout and bail-in, the D.C. Circuit concluded that the statute “continues to single out the jurisdictions in which discrimination is concentrated.”

Dissenting Opinion

The dissenting opinion of Judge Williams concluded that the formula in section 4(b) of the statute was unconstitutional because the significant burdens it imposed on “covered jurisdictions” were not “congruent and proportional” to the problems of racially discriminatory voting laws that it targeted.


[1] Prior posts examined the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 2006 and the prior U.S. Supreme Court case regarding the latter statute.