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Obama names four new federal judges for California

Three of his four appointees to the Central and Northern U.S. District Courts in California are Asian Americans.

August 09, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Fresh from his appointment of the first Latino to the U.S. Supreme Court, President Obama has named four new federal judges for California, three of them Asian Americans, who have long been underrepresented on the federal bench.

Two of the appointments are to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles, and two are to the Northern District of California in San Francisco. They will be brought before the Senate for confirmation after its summer recess.

On Friday, a day after Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed by the Senate, the president named U.S. Magistrate Judges Edward M. Chen and Richard G. Seeborg to the Northern District bench. Both have served there as magistrate judges since 2001.

He also named Dolly Gee, managing partner of the Los Angeles law firm Schwartz, Steinsapir, Dohrmann & Sommers LLP, to the Central District bench. A week earlier, he named Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn H. Nguyen to the District Court in Los Angeles.

"So far, his nominations have been quite diverse in terms of race and gender," Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said of Obama's choices to date for 16 of the 101 federal judgeships that were vacant nationwide when he took office.

Even after the four appointments to California districts, five seats remain vacant in the state -- two each in the Central and Northern districts and one in the Eastern District, which includes most of the state's prisons.

Obama's nominations for California are also striking in their establishing of a "career judiciary," Tobias said, noting the president's preference for elevating sitting judges, from the magistrate courts to the district courts, and from the district courts to the circuit courts of appeal.

Only Gee, 50, a labor and employment litigator and past president of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Assn., lacks prior experience as a judge, although she was a clerk for an Eastern District judge after graduating from UCLA law school in 1984.

Nguyen, 44 and also a UCLA law graduate, spent several months at a Camp Pendleton refugee camp when she was a child after her family was airlifted out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. If confirmed, she would be the nation's first Vietnamese district judge.

Chen, 56, worked as a staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union before his judicial appointment. If confirmed, he would be the only Asian American on the Northern District bench, which also lacks Latino representation among its 14 judges.

Seeborg, 52, served as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Jose and worked at the Morrison & Foerster law firm in Palo Alto and San Francisco before he was named a magistrate judge.

Although Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Sotomayor for almost a week on her judicial record and speeches, the District Court appointments are likely to be subjected to less scrutiny, because a president's choices for the lower courts are usually less controversial.

District courts are relied on to simply apply the law at trial, while Appeals Court judges have more latitude to interpret a law's intent and context.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco also has two of its 28 judgeships vacant and a third opening expected early next year.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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