(Reuters) - President Barack Obama plans to plow ahead with an effort to shape and diversify the U.S. judiciary, despite the ability of Republicans to block nominees now that they have a Senate majority, Obama’s in-house lawyer said on Monday.
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a telephone interview that he hoped the Senate would confirm 75 nominees during Obama’s final two years in office, a number he said would be on pace with recent presidents, even when they faced a Senate controlled by the opposing party.
“Around 75 or so seems to be about the average, and I would suspect that we would continue at roughly that pace,” said Eggleston, who advises Obama on judicial nominations.
Federal judges are among the most powerful legacies a president can leave behind because they serve for life once they are confirmed by the Senate.
After a slow start, Obama surpassed recent predecessors in total judges appointed. Through six years in office, Obama has appointed 303 judges to district and appellate courts, according to the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.
By the same point in their presidencies, Republican George W. Bush had appointed 253 judges and Democrat Bill Clinton 298.
In their final two years, Bush appointed 68 judges and Clinton 72, according to the Federal Judicial Center. Ronald Reagan, a Republican who left office in 1989, appointed 83 in his final two years. Like Obama, all faced a Senate held by the opposition.
Republicans see the numbers differently. A spokeswoman for Senator Charles Grassley, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that by the senator’s count, Obama already had 11 nominees confirmed in the new Congress because Democrats pushed them through during a “lame duck” session last month, against tradition.
Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in a statement that Obama’s nominees would get fair consideration, but Congress had a responsibility to block unqualified nominees.
“There’s too much at stake for Congress to be a rubber stamp on non-consensus nominees,” he said.
More than his predecessors, Obama has appointed judges who are women, racial minorities or gay. Since August 2009, his first year in office, the percentage of active judges who were white men has fallen to 51 percent from 59 percent, according to the Brookings Institution.
“I’ve not had any push back from anybody in the Senate on that, and I don’t think I will,” Eggleston said.
Reporting by David Ingram in New York. Editing by Andre Grenon