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Obama Administration May Bring Ideological Shift to Federal Courts

President-elect Barack Obama is poised to preside over significant shifts in the federal courts from lower court judicial appointments to Supreme Court shifts. Analysts examine Obama's constitutional views and how he may handle changes in the judiciary.

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    When President-elect Obama takes office on January 20th, he will be responsible for nominating judges to any vacancies on the federal judiciary. That includes openings on the nine-member Supreme Court, but also any of the 179 judgeships on the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal or the 678 seats on the federal district courts.

    For a look at the potential for President-elect Obama to reshape the nation's courts, I am joined by Professor Cassell, professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. He previously served as a U.S. district court judge for the district of Utah from 2002 to 2007.

    And Pam Karlan, she is a professor of public interest law at Stanford Law School.

    Thank you both for being with us.

    And, Professor Cassell, to you first. What do you think the potential is for a major shift in philosophy once this president takes office?

    PAUL CASSELL, University of Utah: Well, I don't think there's much of a potential for a major shift at the district court level. I think that President Obama's nominees will be solid, capable, technical lawyers at that level.

    But as you move up to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court level, I think there is the potential for ideology to come to the fore and perhaps see much more of an activist bent in the judges and justices there than you would have seen under a President Bush or a President McCain.


    Professor Karlan, what do you think the potential is?

  • PAM KARLAN, Stanford University Law School:

    Well, I think there are two things. One is, every president in recent years who's come into the office has appointed about 300 judges to the federal bench. So that means that a substantial number of the judges who will be sitting for the next decade or so will be people that were appointed before President Obama takes office.

    But I do think that different presidents differ in their philosophies about whom to appoint to the bench, and that makes a difference, not only on the courts of appeals, but I think even in the district courts, because how a judge finds the facts or resolves disputed factual questions in front of him may depend a lot on what that judge's experience has been before he came to the bench or what her worldview is like.

    How he or she exercises discretion is going to be different. In a lot of cases, there's a lot of room for judges to find the facts differently or to apply the law differently.