DENVER — President Barack Obama has a strong opportunity in the coming year to significantly shape the makeup of the federal appeals court that serves Oklahoma.
The president has four spots to fill in 2013 on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a tribunal one step below the U.S. Supreme Court.
Obama's four picks will bring the Democratic president's nominees for the court to five of its 12 full-time judges.
One spot to be filled is the long-vacant judgeship created by Robert Henry's resignation, effective in June 2010, to become president of Oklahoma City University.
In addition to the Oklahoma spot, Obama will be filling openings on the six-state court from Kansas, Utah and Wyoming.
The Denver-based court also serves Colorado and New Mexico.
Of the 10 full-time spots now occupied, one was filled by President George H.W. Bush, three by President Bill Clinton, five by President George W. Bush and one by Obama.
The president's nominees must be confirmed by the Senate.
Obama's nomination of Robert Bacharach to fill Henry's seat was blocked throughout 2012 by Senate Republican leaders, despite support for Bacharach from Oklahoma's two Republican senators.
Obama is expected to renominate Bacharach in the new year. He is a U.S. District Court magistrate judge in Oklahoma City.
Deanell Tacha, of Lawrence, Kan., resigned in March 2011 to become law school dean at Pepperdine University.
The president's nominee for the Kansas seat, former state Attorney General Steve Six, never got a hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee because of opposition from the state's two Republican senators. Obama has not yet submitted another nomination.
The Utah and Wyoming spots opened more recently because of the decisions of judges Terrence O'Brien, of Cheyenne, Wyo., and Michael Murphy, of Salt Lake City, to step away in 2013 from full-time work, taking a status called senior judge.
Obama's only nominee to the court who has received confirmation is Judge Scott Matheson Jr., of Salt Lake City, who the Senate confirmed in December, 2010.
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who studies and comments on the federal judicial appointment process, thinks Obama will avoid potential obstacles from Republican senators this year.
“I'm sure that Bacharach will be confirmed soon,” Tobias said.
He said Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe “didn't want to buck the GOP leadership” in the closing weeks of the 2012 congressional session.
For the president to have his nominees for the Kansas, Utah and Wyoming spots confirmed, it will be critical for the president's advisers to consult with Republican senators from those states before making nominations, Tobias said.
“I think that Obama can fill these vacancies,” just as he has filled large numbers of vacancies in other federal circuit courts, the professor said.
“The 10th Circuit Court may change because as Justice (Byron) White used to say of the United States Supreme Court, one new justice changes the dynamics,” Tobias said.
Four new 10th Circuit judges will be a third of the active judges.
“So much will depend on who the appointees are,” Tobias said.
“I would expect the president's other nominees to be like Matheson and Bacharach — well-qualified, mainstream jurists — who will decide each case as it arises on the merits,” the professor said.