Why you should care
Because it’s time an Asian-American judge came off the bench and onto … the Bench.
Will Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan — a lanky 48-year-old — be donning black robes soon? The former Kansas high school basketball sharpshooter was a highly touted recruit to the District of Columbia’s Federal Court of Appeals, a well-known “feeder school” for the U.S. Supreme Court. A few years ago, he became the first South Asian to occupy such a seat when the Senate confirmed his appointment 97–0.
Next up in his docket: nomination to the Supreme Court? That’s what court watchers are saying — and desis from Punjab to Palo Alto are hoping — in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death over the weekend.
Buoyed by unusually strong support from D.C. veterans, Srinivasan is now the de facto poster child for a growing line of Asian-American jurists seeking to add a dash of masala to the Supreme Court. While Asian-Americans have occupied elite legal circles for some time, few have risen to the top ranks. Out of the total federal court judges appointed, fewer than 3 percent are Asian-American.
Still, things are changing, according to Vincent Eng of the Veng Group, which advocates on behalf of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association on judicial nominations. Before Obama, there were eight active Asian Pacific American Article III judges; today there are 25. “Asian-Americans are entering a new phase in their history in the United States,” Eng says. “The pool that can be elevated to the Supreme Court is larger than it’s ever been.”
The president has of course made significant strides in diversifying the federal judiciary. More than 36 percent of his appointees have been minorities (compared with 18 percent for Bush), and, according to the White House, the four Asian-American federal judges he’s appointed represent more than the combined total of all past presidents. For Eng, it’s a no-brainer: Plenty of Asian-Americans are on the SCOTUS shortlist, and most are well-poised to make it through a difficult confirmation process because they “have a strong record of bipartisan support.”
Why now? For starters, the first generation of viable Asian-American candidates is finally coming of age, which for Supreme Court candidates means approaching 50. Not coincidentally, it’s been 50 years since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed severe quotas on Asian immigration to the United States. If law-school attendance and judicial clerkship stats are any indication, the talent pipeline will only continue to rise. Asian-Americans make up 14.8 percent, 12.3 percent and 10.1 percent of the law students at the three highest-ranked law schools in the country — Yale, Harvard and Stanford, respectively.
While Srinivasan seems the most likely candidate, Asian-American or otherwise, there are several other Asian-American prospects. Here’s a preview of the dossiers that might be floating across the president’s desk.
JACQUELINE HONG-NGOC NGUYEN
Current position: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Born: In Vietnam, daughter of a South Vietnamese army officer
Moved to: Los Angeles, in 1975
First jobs: Cleaning offices and dishing out doughnuts at her family’s West Hollywood shop
Undergrad: Occidental College scholarship
Law school: UCLA (note: not Harvard or Yale)
Why she kicks ass: First Asian-Pacific woman to serve on a federal appeals court
What you should know: If Obama wants to up the court’s female count from three to four, then Nguyen, a former prosecutor who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, will be a heavy favorite. As a graduate of UCLA Law School, she would also add some much-needed law-school diversity to the court.
Current position: California attorney general
Born: Oakland, California, daughter of a Jamaican economics professor at Stanford and an Indian-born M.D. specializing in breast cancer
First ever: Female African-American and Indian-American attorney general in California
Semi-controversial superlative: President Obama called her “best looking” — before dialing it back.
Undergrad: Howard University
Law school: University of California, Hastings College
Plan B: Next governor of California?
What you should know: Now campaigning for the Senate seat Barbara Boxer will vacate, Harris was elected California’s attorney general in 2010. Before that, she served as San Francisco’s district attorney. Some argue that it seems more likely that Harris will end up as Senator, U.S. attorney general, governor of California or even the VP pick. Harris has already told her constituents that she is not interested in being nominated, but if Obama picks her for the Supreme Court, she’d be the first active politician to be nominated since Earl Warren in the 1950s.
Current position: California State Supreme Court
Born: Augusta, Georgia, son of two Taiwanese doctors
Once clerked for: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and wrote a draft of her dissent in Bush v. Gore)
Undergrad: Stanford, Rhodes scholar at Oxford
Law school: Yale
Career hiccup: In 2011, Republicans filibustered his nomination by Obama to the Ninth Circuit
What really pissed off Republicans: His comment during Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court that Alito’s “record envisions an America where police may shoot and kill an unarmed boy to stop him from running away with a stolen purse.”
What you should know: Liu failed to pass the Senate Judicial Committee gauntlet in 2011, when Republican members painted him as wanting to make America more like “communist-run China,” filibustering his nomination to the Ninth Circuit. Unlike Srinivasan, Liu has a voluminous academic paper trail, and his writings on constitutional law and other issues are easy to scrutinize. But Liu was immediately scooped up by his local affiliate, the California State Supreme Court, and some say he could still make the jump to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Current position: Partner at Hogan Lovells, where he runs the appellate practice
Born: Chicago, son of a physician mother and engineer father
Bigwigs who held same jobs before him: Justice Elena Kagan, Chief Justice John Roberts
Law school: Yale
Huge wins: Successfully argued the constitutionality of Obamacare; issued the Justice Department’s first public apology for the 1942 Korematsu Supreme Court case that upheld the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II
What you should know: President Obama named Katyal U.S. solicitor general when Kagan was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2010. He now runs the appellate practice once run by Chief Justice Roberts at the Hogan Lovells law firm. The Illinois son of Indian immigrants also represented Guantanamo Bay detainees in the landmark case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which the Supreme Court held that the Bush administration’s military tribunals violated the Geneva Conventions.
—Leslie Nguyen-Okwu reported updates to this story, originally published in September 2013.