Story highlights

Three lawyers nominated to short-staffed D.C. appeals court

This appeals court has been a stepping stone for some to Supreme Court

Obama launches high-stakes political fight over confirmation process

NEW: Republicans criticize Obama's decision to nominate three judges at once

Washington CNN  — 

President Barack Obama nominated three Washington lawyers on Tuesday to fill seats on a high-profile appeals court, launching a political fight with Republicans over his legacy and over Senate confirmation authority.

“What I’m doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job,” Obama said.

He introduced the nominees at a White House ceremony, saying they would fill critical vacancies on the short-staffed U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which has been a stepping stone to the Supreme Court for some.

The move marks a bold nomination strategy, which government sources say is designed to force Republicans to try and launch a politically risky filibuster in the Senate.

The nominees include:

Patricia Millett, a private appellate attorney with more than a decade of experience in the U.S. solicitor general’s office; Cornelia “Nina” Pillard, a law professor at Georgetown University; and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins of Washington, who was appointed by Obama in 2010.

The three do not appear to present strong concerns individually about their confirmation prospects, but the ideological fight is expected to be intense and could drag on for months given the makeup and judicial importance of the appeals court.

Obama appeared to offer a preview in strongly worded remarks.

“The Senate is tasked with providing advice and consent. They can approve a president’s nominee or they can reject a president’s nominee. But they have a constitutional duty to promptly consider judicial nominees for confirmation,” he said.

“Now throughout my first term as president, the Senate too often failed to do that,” he said. “Time and again, congressional Republicans cynically used Senate rules and procedures to delay and even block qualified nominees from coming to a full vote.”

This was the first time Obama had announced non-Supreme Court judicial nominees at a public event.

The D.C. appeals court hears a significant number of key appeals over civil and administrative matters involving congressional laws and executive actions.

And it has been viewed as something of a “feeder” to the Supreme Court.

Four members of the current high court moved the three blocks from their appeals chambers to their current jobs: Chief Justice John Roberts, and associate justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Some Republicans argue the three vacancies currently on the appeals bench should remain unfilled, citing what they see as a relatively light caseload.

They criticized Obama’s choices to nominate multiple judges at one time.

‪”It’s hard to imagine the rationale for nominating three judges at once for this court given the many vacant emergency seats across the country, unless your goal is to pack the court to advance a certain policy agenda,” said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Federal judges are appointed for life. Unlike the Supreme Court, which by its own discretion hears only about 80 petitions a year, the 179 appeals court judges in the 13 federal circuits must fully consider every appeal filed. That gives them a broad impact on the law and society.

There are currently 16 appeals court vacancies and 65 district court opening.

One recent nominee to the D.C. appeals court – Caitlin Halligan – was filibustered successfully earlier this year by Republicans, who said she met the “extraordinary circumstances” justifying a delay in a confirmation vote. She later withdrew from further consideration.

Another nominee– former Justice Department lawyer Sri Srinivasan– received Senate approval late last month and now sits on the eight-member full-time bench. It was the president’s first successful appointment to that court.

Republicans have been criticized for delaying Senate floor votes on many nominees in the president’s first term in office. But the White House, too, has come under fire for not moving quickly to fill growing bench vacancies.

CNN’s Jim Acosta and Brianna Keilar contributed to this report.