WASHINGTON — A fourth judicial vacancy has opened up on the federal trial court in Washington, DC, giving President-elect Donald Trump another opportunity at the start of his presidency to choose nominees for an important court that routinely hears lawsuits against the federal government.
US District Judge Richard Leon became a senior judge at the start of 2017, creating a vacant active judgeship on the DC bench. Senior judges can still hear cases, but have the option of a smaller docket.
The court, the US District Court for the District of Columbia, currently has no Republican-appointed active judges, but now Trump will be able to nominate four people to the court — more than one-fourth of its active judgeships.
A former prosecutor who served as a counsel to Congress in multiple presidential investigations, Leon was confirmed to the DC federal district court in 2002. He was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday.
Leon ruled in late 2013 that the National Security Agency's bulk collection of telephone metadata was "most likely unconstitutional" after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents to the media that revealed the surveillance program's existence.
Trump is already set to inherit more than 100 federal court vacancies when he takes office this month, giving him an early opportunity to influence the bench nationwide. But the DC court is of particular importance given the number of cases filed there that involve policy and the operations of the federal government.
Nine judges on the DC court were nominated by President Obama, filling a majority of the court's 15 active judgeships. By the end of 2016, Leon was the only active judge on the court who was nominated by a Republican president.
The US Senate did not act on Obama's three nominees to the court, who were sent back to the White House at the start of the new congressional session this week.
The DC court is the primary forum for lawsuits over public records requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Dozens of lawsuits related to access to emails from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private server were filed in DC, and some are still being litigated.
The court also handles a large number of cases challenging the legality of federal regulations, and high-profile public corruption, fraud, and government leaks cases have been prosecuted there. Appeals from the DC court go up to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, an influential court on administrative law.
In recent years, defendants to come through the DC court included former Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds; cyclist Lance Armstrong, who is fighting civil claims that he defrauded the government by doping while his team was sponsored by the US Postal Service; and former professional baseball player Roger Clemens, who was acquitted of charges that he lied to Congress about using performance enhancing drugs.
Zoe Tillman is a legal reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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