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Explained: Who is Sri Srinivasan, the first Indian-American to lead a federal circuit court in the US?

Sri Srinivasan was appointed to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in May 2013 after he was confirmed by a 97-0 bipartisan vote in the US Senate. He became Chief Judge on February 12, 2020.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Published: February 20, 2020 2:12:32 pm
Explained: Who is Sri Srinivasan, the first Indian-American to lead a federal circuit court in the US? Sri Srinivasan, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and a potential Supreme Court nominee, in Washington, April 10, 2013. (The New York Times: Doug Mills)

Prominent judge Sri Srinivasan has become the first Indian-American to lead a powerful federal circuit court in the US, which is considered next only to the Supreme Court. Srinivasan, 52, has become the Chief Judge of the United States High Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

Who is Sri Srinivasan?

A graduate of Stanford University, Stanford Law School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, Srinivasan was appointed to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in May 2013 after he was confirmed by a 97-0 bipartisan vote in the US Senate. He became Chief Judge on February 12, 2020.

Significantly, before former President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland, Srinivasan was mentioned as a possible nominee to take over the position from former United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia after he passed away in 2016. In a March 2016 post published on the blog of the US Supreme Court, Tom Goldstein an appellate advocate described Srinivasan as “as moderate a judge as Republicans could expect a Democratic president (Obama) could nominate.”

“His views seem to be solidly in the center of American legal thought. He seems quite attentive to precedent; his rulings do not seem designed to move existing law, much less to take a leading liberal position on ideological questions. On close ideological questions, he seems likely to lean to the left, but still gravitate towards the centre,” Goldstein wrote.

Sri Srinivasan: Notable representations and decisions

In 2013, as the senior Justice Department lawyer, Srinivasan was part of the legal team that argued against the Defense of Marriage Act, which restricted the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples for the purposes of federal benefits. This ruling eventually led to the June 2015 ruling that legalised gay marriage in the US.

Prior to his appointment to the appeals court, Srinivasan successfully represented Jeff Skilling, the CEO of Enron Corp, in a Supreme Court case. He has also represented Exxon Mobile Corp in a lawsuit that alleged human rights abuses in Indonesia and mining group Rio Tinto in a similar case related to their activities in Papua New Guinea.

Explained: Who is Sri Srinivasan, the first Indian-American to lead a federal circuit court in the US? Srinivasan, 52, has become the Chief Judge of the United States High Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. (The New York Times: Doug Mills)

As part of the DC Circuit, Srinivasan was involved in a number of important environmental law cases, where he has been a member of panels that have ruled against states challenging Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in favour of environmental challengers. He has also been involved in First Amendment Cases, where he has consistently ruled against free speech claims. Some of the other kinds of cases he has been a part of include those concerned with criminal law, labour laws and a decision that touched on Hillary Clinton’s email controversy, which required searches of her private email server.

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How do high court judges assume their position in the US?

The US Supreme Court hears over 100-150 appeals of more than 7,000 cases, which it is asked to review every year. Therefore, decisions made by the 12 US Court of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are often the last word in thousands of cases.

In the US, as per the provisions of the Constitution, Supreme Court justices, the court of appeals judges and district court judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Names of potential nominees may be recommended by senators or members of the House who are of the President’s political party. Further, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts confirmation hearings for each of the nominees. Article III of the US Constitution states that these judicial officers are appointed for a life term.

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Chief judges, on the other hand, are not nominated or appointed, except for the Chief Justice of the United States, but they assume the position based on seniority. Essentially, a chief judge is the judge in regular active service who is senior in the commission of those judges who are 64 years old or younger, have served for at least one year as a judge and have not previously served a chief judge.

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