A closer look at Obama's judges, federal agencies, and his approach to science and secrecy

  • The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a "threatened" species in 2008, and last year, pressured by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, the Obama administration designated 120 million acres of critical habitat -- mostly sea ice. Regardless, climate change is shrinking the sea ice. Some environmentalists say this administration missed an opportunity to bring the discussion of climate change to the forefront when it declined to upgrade the listing from threatened to endangered.

    Martha de Jong-Lantink, cc via Flickr
  • Energy Secretary Steven Chu makes a presentation on “Building a Sustainable Energy Future” in December at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún.

    Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
  • Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (right) and U. S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., listen to public comments at a meeting on healthy forests in Deer Lodge, Montana, last March.


Federal judges

Background Judges strive to be objective, but they're only human. Studies show that federal judges appointed by Democratic presidents show a slight tendency to rule in favor of environmentalists' positions, while Republican judges tend toward the opposite. When Obama took office, nearly 60 percent of the active federal judges were Republican.

Since a federal judgeship is a lifetime appointment, it is arguably the arena in which a president has the longest-lasting impact.

The struggle Obama could significantly affect the partisan balance on the bench: About 55 of the 875 lifetime judgeships were vacant when he took office, and more become vacant as judges retire. The Senate has approved 62 nominations so far, including two Supreme Court justices (making the court now 5-4 Republican) as well as promotions of some Clinton-era judges to higher courts. But Obama has yet to nominate candidates for all the vacancies, and he faces unusual resistance from Senate Republicans who have refused to approve dozens of his nominees. In the Western and Washington, D.C., courts that rule on cases brought by Western environmentalists, there are now about two dozen vacant judgeships.

Example Nancy Freudenthal, the wife of former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, is one of roughly a dozen new Obama judges on Western courts. She replaced elderly U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer, who was appointed by Republican President Reagan and often ruled against environmentalists. (Brimmer is on senior status now, handling only a few cases.) One of Judge Freudenthal's first rulings, last September, upheld most of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's plan to designate critical habitat for lynx in six states. Snowmobile groups were disappointed; environmentalists were pleased.

On the horizon U.S. District Judge Don Molloy in Missoula, Mont. -- who often handles cases about wolves, grizzlies and national forests -- plans to go on senior status later this year. Environmentalists generally like Molloy, while conservatives complain that he's biased against them. Obama has not yet nominated a replacement; it will be a key appointment.

by Ray Ring

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Obama’s record on Western environmental issues
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