For the next decade or longer, President Barack Obama’s political legacy in the Bay Area may be easiest to detect inside federal courthouses in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
Over the past six years, Obama has overhauled the Bay Area’s roster of federal judges in unprecedented numbers, appointing 11 of the 14 full-time judges — the most dramatic transformation of a federal district court bench in the nation during his administration.
By comparison, former President George W. Bush appointed just one Bay Area federal judge, Jeffrey White, in his two terms — for the most part because the district’s Clinton and Carter appointees did not want to relinquish their seats during a Republican administration.
While the makeover is unlikely to noticeably shift the ideological bent of a court that already was dominated by Democratic appointees, its effect nevertheless will be lasting. The Bay Area Obama judges, appointed to lifetime tenure, are a generally young, demographically diverse group that will be deciding Silicon Valley tech showdowns, civil rights challenges and major federal criminal law questions for the foreseeable future.
“It’s significant,” said attorney Jack Lee, who heads Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Bay Area judicial screening committee. “I think it’s going to be different because these newer judges are far younger. It’s generational.”
Boxer and her fellow California Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, recommend district court judges to the White House, carrying heavy influence on the process. The 11 Obama appointees sailed through Senate confirmation hearings, with one exception: Edward Chen, one of the president’s earliest nominees, faced Republican opposition for some of his past work for the American Civil Liberties Union before he was finally confirmed.
Overall, the legal community views the group favorably, although some veteran legal leaders say privately that they have yet to prove they measure up to past local federal judges with lofty reputations. “They don’t have the same gravitas,” said one top Bay Area attorney who has practiced in the court for decades.
But many lawyers and judges say these freshly minted federal judges will build such reputations over time, bringing with them a more tech-savvy approach and diverse legal backgrounds. “There aren’t any loose cannons,” said Rory Little, a Hastings College of the Law professor.
The group also is diverse with seven minority appointees, including the court’s first Asian-American appointee, San Jose’s Lucy Koh; first Latina, Yvonne Gonzalez-Rogers; and first Indian-American, Vince Chhabria.
Veteran federal judges, many of whom still play a large role on the court handling cases as “senior,” or semi-retired, judges, say the group also brings swagger.
“They come in with a confidence in themselves and their place on the court that I didn’t feel when I came in,” said U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, a 1980 Carter appointee. “They don’t just follow our lead. They say, ‘Here’s the way I’m going to do it.’ “
Added Jeremy Fogel, a San Jose federal judge who now serves as director of the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C.: “What you have is sort of more informal. They are just not as stuck on the idea that a judge is casting down thunderbolts.”
The new crop of judges may not have cast any thunderbolts yet, but some already have made their mark in major legal showdowns. Koh, in particular, already has carved out a reputation as one of the most influential federal judges in the country for the tech industry, in large part for her handling of the epic patent feud between Apple and Samsung and her rulings shaping a lawsuit against Silicon Valley’s major companies involving illegal hiring practices.
Chen and Chhabria have issued significant decisions allowing cases against Uber and Lyft’s business models to proceed. And San Francisco Judge Jon Tigar broke new ground by ordering the California prison system to provide sex-reassignment surgery to a transgender inmate.
Such overhauls of particular federal courts certainly have caught the attention of conservative judicial watchdog groups, as Obama has now matched Clinton’s appointment numbers nationally and surpassed Bush. Carrie Severino, policy director of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network in Washington, said it is not surprising that Obama would shape a federal bench in a liberal “stronghold” such as the Bay Area, but she worries about the long-term effect of what she considers appointing judges who carry agendas.
“It’s a huge thing,” she said. “It’s really a striking level of influence over that district.”
Regardless of the outcome of the next election, it appears the next president will not have that level of influence on this region’s court. There simply isn’t expected to be much turnover for many years.
“I think the people there are going to be there awhile,” Lee said. “We’re going to have some stability.”
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236. Follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.
Obama appointees to Bay Area federal court
Edward Chen, 62, San Francisco
Jon Tigar, 53, San Francisco
Vince Chhabria, 46, San Francisco
James Donato, 55, San Francisco
William Orrick, 62, San Francisco
Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, 50, Oakland
Haywood Gilliam, 46, San Francisco
Richard Seeborg, 59, San Francisco
Edward Davila, 63, San Jose
Lucy Koh, 47, San Jose
Beth Labson Freeman, 62, San Jose