WASHINGTON When President Barack Obama entered
the White House in 2009, the federal appeals court based in
Virginia was known as one of the most conservative benches in
Two Obama terms later, Democratic appointees hold a 10-5
majority on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of
which issued a groundbreaking ruling this April backing
The shift to the left on the court, which hears cases from
Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, South Carolina and North
Carolina, highlights a widely overlooked aspect of Obama's
His appointments of dozens of judges to the country's
influential federal appeals courts have tilted the judiciary in
a liberal direction that will influence rulings for years to
come and be further entrenched if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins
this November's presidential election.
A Reuters review of rulings by the courts over the last two
years shows Obama's appointees to the appeals courts have
influenced major legal battles likely to ultimately reach the
Obama-appointed judges have voted in favor of broad civil
rights protections, major Obama administration regulations and
gun regulations and against Republican-backed voting rules.
(FACTBOX on recent rulings: )
(Graphic showing the changes under Obama tmsnrt.rs/2blUhmV)
When seeking to appoint judges, the White House has said it
is looking for highly credentialed lawyers reflecting the
diversity of U.S. society. Conservative critics say he has
picked judges who are willing to circumvent the law in order to
reach preferred outcomes.
"There's no question President Obama's nominees have
absolutely been part of his effort to transform the country and
move it dramatically to the left," said Carrie Severino, a
conservative legal activist.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement that
Obama's appointees "all share impeccable qualifications,
unquestioned integrity, and a steadfast commitment to equal
justice under the law."
The appeals courts are the first stop for any case appealed
from the lower U.S. district courts and often have the last
word. The next and final destination is the Supreme Court, but
it hears fewer than 100 cases a year. The appeals courts handle
35,000 a year according to the Administrative Office of the U.S.
Of the 13 appeals courts, nine now have a majority of
Democratic appointees, compared with one when Obama took office,
according to research carried out by Russell Wheeler, a scholar
at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
In addition to appointing two Supreme Court justices and
dozens of district court judges, Obama appointments now make up
55 of the current 168 appeals court judges, according to the
judiciary. Obama's current total of 323 district and appeals
court appointments, most of them district court judges, is
similar to the tallies achieved by other recent two-term
The regional appeals courts are currently more powerful than
ever because of the vacancy on the Supreme Court caused by the
death of Justice Antonin Scalia, which has left the court
divided equally between liberals and conservatives. If the
ideologically divided court splits 4-4, the appeals court ruling
is left intact. Such an outcome occurred four times in the
Supreme Court term that recently ended.
Scalia's seat is unlikely to be filled until next year due
to political opposition from Republicans in the Senate, which
has the job of confirming nominees.
One of the most dramatic transformations has been on the 4th
In July 2007, 18 months before Obama became president,
Republican appointees held a 7-5 majority. Through a mix of
seven Obama appointments and retirements, Democratic appointees
now hold sway.
In April, a three-judge panel featuring two Obama appointees
ruled in favor of a transgender student seeking to use a boys'
restroom. The two Obama appointees were in the majority, with a
Republican appointee dissenting.
Three months later, a three-judge panel featuring two Obama
appointees and one judge appointed by Democratic President Bill
Clinton struck down North Carolina's strict voter identification
law on a 3-0 vote, saying the state legislature had enacted it
with discriminatory intent.
It is one of several recent court rulings pushing back on
Republican-led efforts to impose new voting regulations, which
Democrats say is intended to deter minorities from voting.
Caroline Fredrickson, president of liberal legal group the
American Constitution Society, said Republican-appointed judges
are generally less likely to rule in favor of broad
interpretations of civil rights. The transgender case would
"very likely" have come out differently with a more conservative
panel of judges, she said.
The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. is another
where the balance of power has been flipped. Often known in
legal circles as the second highest court in the land because it
hears important cases concerning the federal government, the
U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was
dominated by conservatives 6-3 when Obama took office.
Obama was able to force through four appointments after a
major showdown in the Senate. The court now has a 7-4 split in
favor of Democratic appointees.
In June, an Obama appointee, Judge Sri Srinivasan, cast the
deciding vote as a three-judge panel upheld the Federal
Communication Commission's so-called "net neutrality"
regulation. Srinivasan joined a Clinton appointee in the
majority. A judge appointed by Republican President Ronald
Reagan dissented. The regulation is widely opposed by the
telecommunications industry and backed by digital rights
Obama's appointees do sometimes vote in favor of
conservative outcomes. Paul Watford, a judge on the San
Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has on
several occasions reached a different conclusion to his more
liberal colleagues. In one recent decision from Aug. 15, he
dissented along with conservative judges when the court ruled
that a death row inmate should be able to file a new appeal.
When announcing three of his nominees to the appeals court
in Washington at a White House press conference in June 2013,
Obama rejected any notion that they were political pawns,
emphasizing their strong credentials.
"These are no slouches. These are no hacks," he said.