Elizabeth Warren
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

President Barack Obama has pushed to bring racial and gender diversity to the federal bench. But when it comes to employment diversity — the professional backgrounds of the president’s picks — Democrats and liberal interest groups have a gripe. Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) urged Obama to nominate fewer corporate lawyers from large firms. Warren, citing a study by the liberal Alliance For Justice, said Obama’s judicial nominations so far have been in line with previous presidents — selecting lawyers from big firms with large corporate client bases.

Seventy-one percent of Obama’s nominees have practiced primarily for corporate or business clients, Warren said on Feb. 6 during a Capitol Hill event organized by the Alliance for Justice. She said that fewer than 4 percent have come to the bench with a background in public interest organizations. Warren, a Wall Street watchdog and early proponent of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said the imbalance gives corporations “a second bite at the apple” to try to stop laws they don’t like if lobbying efforts prove unsuccessful.

“It matters that someone has represented someone other than corporate clients — that they’ve had real experience with people who can’t afford lawyers, that they’ve had real experience trying to fight for the public interest, that they’ve had real experience doing something other than representing corporate clients,” Warren said.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that too little attention is paid to the role of professional background diversity — even at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court. “Without that kind of diversity, we’re actually missing in the conference the kind of give and take and information I think is essential.” — Todd Ruger

SENATOR PITCHES HIGHER ED REFORMS

A senator who’s supporting legislation to make higher education more affordable says colleges — including law schools — should be structured in more innovative ways to reduce the cost of a degree.

Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), ­speaking on Feb. 4 on the Senate floor about his College Affordability and Innovation Act of 2014, said “there is no magic” about how many years a student must attend classes to get a degree. Consolidating graduate programs with undergraduate programs is one of the easiest ways to reduce the cost of a degree, Murphy said.

Murphy’s comments match what President Barack Obama suggested last year — that law students in their third year would “be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much. But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student.”

Murphy said: “I think President Obama is right; one doesn’t need seven years to become a lawyer in this country. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that one has to essentially spend 10 to 15 years in education and training to become a doctor. We can consolidate graduate and undergraduate programs.”

One part of the bill would give grants to a small number of schools to build programs to do that, as well as other innovations like “competency-based degree programming” or initiatives to give greater credit for work that students did in high school or other outside programs.

The legislation has three cosponsors: Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). — Todd Ruger

JUDGE FINES FEDS OVER ‘EGREGIOUS MISCONDUCT’

Facing a federal judge’s wrath for discovery errors, lawyers for the Federal Bureau of Prisons apologized last week.

U.S. District Senior Judge Royce Lamberth of Washington issued an order on Jan. 15 finding the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia committed “egregious misconduct” in discovery. In Feb. 6 court papers, Daniel Van Horn, chief of the civil division in the U.S. attorney’s office, and assistant U.S. attorney Brian Hudak told Lamberth that the government’s lawyers “regret the inadvertent errors appropriately noted by the Court.” The mistakes were the result “of negligence and oversight,” they said, but not “bad faith, or lack of respect for the Court.”

The underlying lawsuit involves a challenge to how the Federal Bureau of Prisons treats prisoners classified as “terrorist inmates.” The case was brought by federal inmate Randall Todd Royer, also known as Ismail Royer. As punishment for the discovery errors, Lamberth ordered the government to pay legal fees to Royer’s lawyers, Michael Kirkpatrick and Jehan Patterson of Public Citizen Litigation Group. On Feb. 5, Lamberth granted Kirkpatrick and Patterson’s request for more than $41,000 in fees and expenses.

Van Horn and Hudak told Lamberth last week that government lawyers had “fully responded … in good faith” to requests for information by Royer’s lawyers. They also noted that prison officials moved Royer back into the prison’s general population on Jan. 17; he previously was housed in a more restrictive prison unit. — Zoe Tillman

NO END TO HIGH COURT DRAMA

The Senate is unlikely to eliminate filibusters against U.S. Supreme Court nominees because the confirmation hearings are too high-profile, a Georgetown University Law Center professor said. “I don’t think there’s much political incentive to do that,” Victoria Nourse said during a discussion at the law school on Jan. 28. “If there is something that somebody cares about in terms of politics, and that would have an effect on your senatorial campaign, it would be how you voted on a Supreme Court nomination.”

Nourse knows about gridlock in the Senate over judicial confirmations: She was a senior adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Two years ago, her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was blocked at the Senate Judiciary Committee level. — Todd Ruger

FORFEITURE FIGHT DRAGS ON

Lawyers for Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang of Equatorial Guinea last week fired back at federal prosecutors in a dispute over the government’s effort to seize a $38.5 million private jet.

Prosecutors, who contend the airplane was purchased through ill-gotten money, in late January asked Obiang to provide updated information about whether he still has an ownership interest. Obiang’s attorneys, including Brian Wheeler and Heather Martin of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, on Feb. 6 asked U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras of Washington to turn down the government’s latest demand. Obiang’s lawyers called the prosecution move a delay tactic — stalling Contreras’ review of a motion to dismiss the U.S. Department of Justice’s forfeiture complaint. The case was first filed in October 2011. — Mike Scarcella

CIVIL RIGHTS PICK ADVANCES

The nomination of Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice advanced last week, moving closer to a full confirmation vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted, 10-8, to approve Adegbile, a former top lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He argued two significant cases on voting rights before the U.S. Supreme Court during his tenure at the fund.

Republicans renewed their criticism of Adegbile for his advocacy for Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted in the murder of a Philadelphia police officer more than 30 years ago. A letter to the judiciary committee — signed by, among others, Miguel Estrada of Gibson , Dunn & Crutcher, Gregory Garre of Latham & Watkins and S eth Waxman of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr — warned against disqualifying Adegbile based on his past advocacy as a lawyer. — Todd Ruger

FTC WINNING STREAK ENDS

The Federal Trade Commission’s 19-year winning streak is over. The agency’s four commissioners in a split administrative decision ruled last week that pipefitter McWane Inc. did not collude to fix prices in the water works fittings market. It’s the first time in nearly two decades the FTC found against itself in an administrative proceeding.

Still, it was more a win by default.

That’s because the commissioners deadlocked, 2-2, along party lines, with Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and Commissioner Julie Brill, both Democrats, voting to find collusion, and Republican commissioners Joshua Wright and Maureen Ohlhausen voting against. A deadlock at the agency means no action is taken.

Since 1995, the commission has always reversed its administrative law judges when they found for a defendant, according to David Balto, a public interest antitrust lawyer and former FTC official. — Jenna Greene