WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is strongly considering nominating veteran Republican Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl for highly coveted seats on the federal appeals court based in San Francisco, according to political and legal sources.
The staunchly conservative Cox, 48, is an honors graduate of Harvard Law School and clerked for Judge Herbert Y.C. Choy on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Honolulu upon completion of law school.
Kuhl, also 48, is an honors graduate of Duke Law School and clerked for Judge Anthony M. Kennedy on the 9th Circuit before Kennedy was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Washington sources said the FBI had begun the standard background check for judicial nominees on Cox, with one adding that his nomination was a "done deal."
Cox's office declined to comment. One of Kuhl's court clerks said she was on vacation and not reachable.
However, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has been notified by the White House counsel's office that Cox and Kuhl are under strong consideration for 9th Circuit judgeships. The outspokenly liberal Boxer was critical of the prospect that Cox would be given a seat on the powerful court.
California's other Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, declined to comment because Cox "has not been nominated yet."
White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, head of the administration's judicial appointments committee, said he would have no comment "until the president is ready to make an announcement." The Bush administration has been actively reviewing possible candidates for federal judgeships around the nation but has made no nominations thus far.
The 9th Circuit is the nation's largest appeals court with jurisdiction over nine Western states, including California. In addition to San Francisco, the 9th Circuit has a large courthouse in Pasadena and also holds hearings regularly in Seattle, Portland, Honolulu and Anchorage.
There are three vacancies on the 9th Circuit and two of the positions are expected to go to Californians. The third slot is expected to go to a Hawaiian resident and so far, sources said the leading candidate is Honolulu attorney Richard R. Clifton, 50, who clerked for Choy after graduating from Yale Law School and has been the lawyer for the Republican Party in Hawaii.
Cox has been a trusted member of the House leadership since the GOP took control in 1995. He was mentioned earlier this year as a candidate for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, but it was one of several possible moves in his political career that failed to materialize. On two occasions, Cox considered running for the Senate but backed out, as he did in late 1998 after initially pursuing a campaign to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House.
District's Concentration of GOP Voters Tops
Cox's departure after 13 years in Congress would trigger a stampede of candidates to replace him, especially among Republicans. Cox's 47th District has the highest concentration of GOP voters in the state.
Among potential candidates who have toyed with running if Cox left: state Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) who, because of term limits, will be out of office in 2004; Mark C. Johnson, a leader of the New Majority, a group of moderate Republican donors based in Orange County; former state Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange), who left the Legislature last year; and Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has announced plans to run for the state Assembly.
A senior Republican House aide said another possible candidate would be former Republican Rep. James E. Rogan, who lost his seat to Adam Schiff last November in an increasingly Democratic Glendale district. Rogan could move into the 47th District, though there are no residency requirements for Congress.
"That seat is a political plum," GOP consultant Eileen Padberg said Wednesday of Cox's district. "You're assured a paycheck until you choose to retire. It's ripe for almost every person in Orange County who has political aspirations."
A federal appellate judgeship would be attractive to Cox for several reasons, political consultant Scott Hart said, including the lifetime tenure of federal judgeships and a slight bump in salary. Members of Congress make $145,100 a year; federal appellate judges earn $153,900.
If the nomination is offered and Cox accepts, "it's going to be a full-employment act for political consultants" as challengers vie to replace him, Hart said. In 1988, when Cox first won the open seat, there were 16 GOP candidates at one point in the primary.
Cox, who speaks Russian and for several years published an English translation of Pravda, is considered one of the intellectual leaders among House Republicans. He graduated from USC in three years, then earned degrees from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.