The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Paul J. Richards/AFP-Getty Images)

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Two California judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit are reportedly on the Obama administration’s short list to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Both Jacqueline H. Nguyen and Paul J. Watford are graduates of UCLA Law School, and if they were to be nominated and confirmed — decidedly uncertain on both counts — they would be the first from their law school to serve on the nation’s highest court. (Chief Justice Earl Warren attended UC Berkeley).

Nguyen and Watford were nominated to the 9th Circuit by President Obama and confirmed in 2012 after their nominations stalled amid partisan bickering over judges, which continues to this day.

In the White House announcements of their nominations to the federal bench in 2011, Nguyen was described by Obama as “a trailblazer” who would serve with “fairness and integrity” while Watford, who is African-American, was called “diligent, judicious and esteemed.”

It also noted that Nguyen’s family was placed in a refugee camp at Camp Pendleton near San Diego after arriving from Vietnam in 1975 when Nguyen was 10 years old. She was born in 1965 in Da Lat, Vietnam, as Hong-Ngoc Thi Nguyen before changing her name in the U.S.

Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen
Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen (Federal Judiciary Channel/YouTube)

NPR and other media outlets report that Obama has already interviewed Watford, who is 48 years old. In a recent blog post, Tom Goldstein, publisher of the respected SCOTUSblog, wrote that Watford is the most likely nominee for various reasons, including that he was recently vetted for the federal court, attracted bipartisan support in his confirmation and that Obama likely wants a more liberal African-American on the court.

The court already has one Californian, Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. But law professor Rory Little, from UC Hastings College of the Law, thinks adding another 9th Circuit judge makes sense.

“President Obama is not crazy about the East Coast focus of the court,” he said. “California is the most populous state and there ought to be somebody from the West on the Supreme Court, and I don’t think Justice Kennedy is going to be there a whole lot longer.”

Little added that while the 9th Circuit has a somewhat undeserved reputation for having a high reversal rate from the U.S. Supreme Court, neither Watford nor Nguyen “have high public profiles” and both have a “lack of political explosiveness” that the president would likely wish to avoid in a nominee. In fact, Little said, the high court recently affirmed a decision written by Watford (Los Angeles v. Patel, No. 13-1175).

Judge Paul J. Watford.
Judge Paul J. Watford. (Courtesy U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit )

Watford clerked for 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee with libertarian leanings. Judge Kozinski praised Watford as “polite, someone who never lost his temper or got angry.”

“Court clerks are the best and the brightest,” Kozinski added, “but some are like a violin — high-strung. Not Paul. He was very calm and methodical.”

All of the current Supreme Court justices, along with the late Justice Scalia, graduated from Ivy League law schools, which many feel limits their view of the world. Except for Kennedy, none are from the West, a point Scalia noted with criticism before he died.

Kozinski thinks having a second Californian on the court is a good idea.

“Let’s face it,” Kozinski said, “L.A. and Southern California is where 16 million people live. It would be good to have somebody who understands our issues, and problems, our border problem, the geography and the demographics of the Southwest.”

Senate Republicans have said they will refuse to even meet with the president’s nominee, no matter who it is, arguing that the nomination should wait until the next president takes office in January. But the administration hopes it can break that GOP solidarity with the right nominee, who could increase public pressure to — at the very least — hold hearings on the nominee, if not a full vote.

Two California Judges on Obama’s Short List for Supreme Court 9 March,2016Scott Shafer


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED’s Politics and Government Desk. When he’s not asking questions you’ll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer