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Three reasons why nominating Sri Srinivasan for the Supreme Court could change U.S. elections

- March 14, 2016

President Obama seems to be making good his pledge to nominate a Supreme Court justice. Apparently, he has interviewed three candidates for the job: Chief Judge Merrick Garland and Judge Sri Srinivasan from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Judge Paul Watford from the 9th Circuit.

Nominating an Asian American such as Srinivasan would be momentous, as we’ve written elsewhere, especially considering the Supreme Court’s checkered history with Asian immigrants.

A number of observers have already noted some of the reasons Srinivasan would be an excellent nominee. He’s 49, and therefore, if confirmed, would be likely to shape the court’s direction for decades. He was confirmed unanimously (97-0, with 3 not voting) to the D.C. Circuit in 2013, including yes votes from such an unlikely set of supporters as Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Bernie Sanders. This unanimity is all the more remarkable for the D.C. Circuit, which is widely considered the “farm team” for the Supreme Court and is often subject to contentious nomination fights.

Other political considerations favor Srinivasan among the three recently interviewed justices. Many Senate Republicans would find it difficult to oppose Srinivasan, even more so than Garland, who has built a 20-year history of judicial decisions in the D.C. Circuit, or Watford, who hails from the liberal 9th Circuit.

By contrast, Srinivasan worked for the Bush administration and on behalf of corporate clients such as Enron and Exxon. Before that, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee, who would advocate on his behalf. (She recently said that the Senate should just “get on with it” and fill the court vacancy, and she has supported Srinivasan before). It’s easy to imagine the Democrats’ attack ads in tight races against Republicans who opposed Srinivasan, featuring quotes from O’Connor and other Republicans.

But we haven’t seen much analysis of another important political factor: the support Srinivasan can expect from Asian Americans. Here’s why we think it could be powerful.

1. Asian Americans have already gotten one Obama administration nominee confirmed — despite opposition from the National Rifle Association

In 2014, Asian Americans mobilized on behalf of an Obama nominee who seemed impossible to confirm: Vivek Murthy for U.S. surgeon general. At first, Murthy’s nomination didn’t look good. He once tweeted that “guns are a health care issue,” and the group he founded, Doctors for America, proposed various gun-control measures such as a federal ban on assault weapons and ammunition. The National Rifle Association opposed him fiercely, warning senators that their vote to confirm Murthy would be counted against them on the NRA’s annual scorecard.

But Asian American groups made the critical difference in pushing his nomination through. Pan-Asian groups such as Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans got involved, and well-resourced Indian American groups such as American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association mobilized grass-roots supporters to make phone calls and visit wavering senators. These efforts help explain why the Murthy confirmation was the only vote in the 113th Congress that overcame NRA opposition.

A similar Asian American mobilization could help push Srinivasan’s nomination past Senate opposition. Groups such as AAPI and AAHOA are particularly powerful advocates because they have members across the country, not only in blue states such as California and New York, but also in states such as Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, whose incumbent Republican senators face tough reelection fights in 2016. In addition, professional organizations such as the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), the Leaders Forum, and wealthy Asian American entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley would probably join the nomination fight.

Finally, the White House could mobilize even more groups if it framed Srinivasan as the only immigrant who would serve on the Supreme Court and the first to do so in more than 50 years. Srinivasan also successfully defended a legal permanent resident against deportation over a minor drug offense, winning a 9-0 Supreme Court decision (Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder). That should increase his appeal among many other immigrant groups.

2. A Senate fight over a historic, high-profile nomination such as Srinivasan’s could mobilize Asian American voters like never before.

Asian Americans have the lowest rates of voter turnout among U.S. racial groups. At the same time, they are also the fastest growing racial group, adding about 600,000 voters in each presidential election cycle. While many of these voters tend to be concentrated in blue states such as California and New York, they are also becoming a significant share of the electorate in places such as Nevada and Virginia.

A big question remains, though, on whether a heightened level of mobilization by Asian American organizations — such as the one that boosted Murthy’s nomination — would also significantly boost Asian American voter turnout. That depends, in part, on whether such mobilization is confined to lobbying efforts and campaign contribution activity, or whether it also includes significant investments in voter registration and turnout.

Finally, while Asian American elected officials like Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.) and Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) have drawn voter support from a diverse array of Asian American groups in their congressional districts, we have not yet seen whether a national Asian American figure could generate the same kind of voter appeal.

3. Srinivasan’s nomination could prompt Asian Americans to begin contributing to campaigns in proportion to their wealth

One way that Asian Americans can have political influence beyond their states of residence is by making campaign contributions.

Our research (based in large part on Sono Shah’s dissertation work) has found that Asian Americans have not yet flexed their financial muscle politically in proportion to their national share of high earners. For example, Shah’s analysis of campaign contributions in 2011-2012 indicates that although Asian Americans make up 5 percent of high-income households (U.S. citizen-headed households earning more than $100,000 a year), they gave only 2.3 percent of all contributions to presidential, Senate, and House races in 2012.

But Asian American contributions have been growing sharply since 2004. And Indian Americans make up a growing share of total contributions by Asian Americans, increasing from about 15 percent in 1992 to 25 percent in 2012. A Senate confirmation fight over a historic candidacy like Srinivasan’s would probably boost campaign contribution activity among Asian Americans in general — and Indian Americans in particular —in ways never before seen nationally.

Ramakrishnan KR-SS-SCOTUS-figure1

Even if the voting power of Asian Americans may be confined to fewer than a dozen states, some of those states are expected to have close Senate races in 2016. And Asian American citizens have growing financial power that has not yet translated into significant political power. A Senate nomination fight for Srinivasan could easily put that unrealized potential to work.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is professor of public policy and political science, and Sono Shah is a PhD candidate in political science. Both are at the University of California at Riverside and run the website AAPIData.com.