As media outlets such as NPR and CNN continue to speculate about who President Obama may nominate to take the place of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, at least three California justices seem to have the inside track for a spot on the president’s short list of nominees, according to some of the state’s legal observers.
News organizations have predicted that a pair of 9th Circuit Court of Appeals justices will make Obama’s short list of names. Both Paul Watford and Jacqueline Nguyen have traction in terms of the respect they have earned within the state’s legal community, but both likely face GOP opposition because neither is viewed as a conservative.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, has said both Watford and Nguyen, who serve on the 9th Circuit in Pasadena, are smart, talented jurists and would be ready and able to serve on the nation's high court.
“Each of them has terrific qualifications, and they would easily sail through the nominating process in a different year,” Chemerinsky, an expert on constitutional law, told the Northern California Record.
Although Chemerinsky expects a long, drawn-out political battle over a Scalia successor, he pointed out that both Watford and Nguyen have compelling life stories that could translate into public support.
Nguyen was born in South Vietnam but fled when the country fell in 1975. Starting a new life in California, Nguyen proved to be a legal juggernaut as she rose to become a federal prosecutor, district court judge and finally became the first woman of Asian-American to become an appeals court justice in 2012.
Watford, who was also appointed by Obama to the appeals court in 2012, was born and raised in Orange County. If he were confirmed as the newest Supreme Court justice, Watford would be the third African-American to serve on the highest court in the land.
Along with those two potential nominees, Chemerinsky said he would add California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, who was appointed to the post in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown, to the short list .
Cuellar has a gold-plated educational record with degrees from Harvard College, Yale Law School and Stanford University. However, some observers say elements of his background, including being co-chairman of the Obama transition team’s immigration policy group in 2008-2009, might rattle some Senate Republicans.
Chemerinsky said he has met all three potential nominees, and he noted each was personable and articulate. Nguyen, in particular, was overwhelmingly confirmed to the appeals court in a 91 to 3 vote. So it might be difficult for Republicans who confirmed her in 2012 to shift gears and oppose her for the Supreme Court this year, Chemerinsky added.
Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said that nearly anyone Obama would nominate for the seat -- including one of the three California justices -- would be more liberal than Scalia, so another Obama appointment would likely tip the high court’s balance for years to come.
“In a non-election year, more Republicans would be at least willing to bring the nomination to the Senate floor,” Pitney told the Northern California Record.
Pitney added that even if the GOP changed tactics this year and allowed a vote.
“I wouldn’t bet on confirmation,” Pitney said.
Pitney explained that if a nominee is forthright in testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a senator could always find a plausible reason to vote no.
With Democrats hoping to put pressure on Republicans to allow hearings and a vote on the next nominee, Pitney noted that effort might end up falling flat in an election year.
“If you look carefully at polling data, this issue is at the very bottom of public concerns,” Pitney said.