Changes on the Fourth Circuit
The past week has seen some interesting developments for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court, where I clerked for Judge M. Blane Michael (who, in addition to being one of the most brilliant people I know, is also one of the nicest.) Last week, President Obama announced two new nominees to the Court (one of whom once worked as a public defender) and earlier this week the Senate confirmed Andre Davis to fill a seat that has been vacant since 2000. Davis’ confirmation tipped the balance of the Court to 6 Judges appointed by Democrats to 5 appointed by Republicans. To be sure, we should always be careful not read too much into a court based on how many of its members were appointed by Democrats versus Republicans. Still, the number does provide a stark (if overly simple) contrast to the state of the Fourth Circuit just six years ago when the New York Times proclaimed it to be “the shrewdest, most aggressively conservative federal appeals court in the nation.” And after President Bush won reelection in 2004, most observers believed that the Court would become even more conservative.
So, what happened? Unexpected events can be blamed in part for the shift–specifically, Judge J. Michael Luttig’s sudden decision to step down in 2006 and the very sad news earlier this year that Chief Judge Karen J. Williams was resigning after having been diagnosed to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. But, some odd missteps by the Bush Administration also played a role. After Democrats gained control of the Senate following the 2006 elections, for example, conservatives expressed concern that Bush would need to act quickly and wisely to avoid losing control of the Court. And yet, when Republican Senator John Warner and Democratic Senator Jim Webb submitted a list of five potential nominees, Bush inexplicably nominated someone who was not on that list and had instead been backed by the Republican Senator that Webb had defeated.
In any event, whatever the reasons, today’s Fourth Circuit certainly looks a lot different than it did when I was clerking there just a few years ago.