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D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan on Inspiring Ascent to the Bench: ‘Highest Sense of Belonging’

July 07, 2023

By Jeremy Conrad

As a first-generation immigrant, Chief Judge Padmanabhan Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit represents an American success story. His path from childhood newcomer to head of one of the country’s most important courts is particularly inspiring for Asian American law students and associates, many of whom were attendance when Srinivasan spoke at a spring event hosted by the South Asian Bar Association of Washington, D.C., and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area.

Entering his 10th year on the bench and third year as chief judge, he shared his reflections on a distinguished career and the experiences that have influenced his growth. 

Srinivasan was four when his parents permanently relocated to the United States for work. His father was an academic whose employment with the University of Kansas took the family to the Midwest. Srinivasan’s mother quickly enrolled him and his siblings in a variety of programs, following a belief in “assimilation by participation.” In the span of a year, Srinivasan took lessons in horseback riding, ballet, piano, pottery, and an array of sports and other social activities.

Srinivasan noted that his family’s immigration was made possible by relatively recent changes in the law. “For the longest time [starting in] 1790 [with] the first naturalization law, naturalization was limited to white persons,” Srinivasan said, pointing out that the racial limitation on naturalization remained on the books until 1952, just 15 years before his birth. His family first arrived two years after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated quotas and opened up new possibilities for naturalization by Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Srinivasan applied for citizenship when he turned 23. “What sticks out to me about it is that … at 23, I took the oath of citizenship from a federal judge, and 23 years later I took the oath to become a federal judge.” His appointment to the federal judiciary was bittersweet, coinciding with a serious decline in his father’s health.

Following his 2013 confirmation hearing, at which Srinivasan secured unanimous support for his appointment to the bench, his ailing father pulled him close, slowly and methodically reciting the final votes (97–0) and whispering in his ear, “How did you do it?”

“What our parents and our forebears had done paved the road and created these opportunities for us,” Srinivasan said. “I was so thankful [my father] got to see that process through. This was someone who carried me in his arms as a toddler, coming to this country in search of opportunity. Can you just imagine the pride, the validation, the sense of belonging that must have been flowing through his veins? He got to see his son confirmed by the United States Senate to a position of lifetime public service … That was an unbelievable moment.” It would be the last exchange the two shared.

Srinivasan took the oath of office on his father’s copy of the Bhagavad Gita. His mother held the text, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for whom Srinivasan clerked, administered the oath. Thinking about his journey as a naturalized citizen to appointment to one of the most powerful courts in the country, Srinivasan called it the manifestation of the American dream.

“It’s very easy nowadays to think that we should approach these ideals with cynicism, and I understand that there are lots of reasons to want the world to meet the ideals that we all have in our hearts and our minds,” he said, “but we shouldn’t lose sight of the way those dreams and ideals do get realized.”

At one time, the number of Asian and South Asian practitioners before the Supreme Court could be counted on one hand, said Srinivasan. “But then, over time, the numbers grew dramatically,” he said. “That was because a number of Asian Americans joined the solicitor general’s office. One of the privileges of working for that office is that you get to practice before the Supreme Court, representing the United States.”

Srinivasan himself argued more than 25 cases before the Supreme Court during his tenure as principal deputy solicitor general of the United States. Other prominent South Asian colleagues who cut their teeth in the solicitor general’s office include Neal Katyal and Kannon Shanmugam, who hails from Srinivasan’s hometown of Lawrence, Kansas.

Addressing occasions where he has been mistaken for his South Asian colleagues, Srinivasan said that he attributes no ill will to the confusion, noting that Justice Ginsburg was, at times, called by Justice O’Connor’s name. “It’s unfortunate in some ways,” he said, “but I think [being] at a point where there can be some kind of confusion is a sign of progress.” He said that there can be no confusion around the fact that many South Asian Americans are active in representing the United States in the nation’s high courts. “I’ll gladly take the confusion if that’s the byproduct of having the opportunity.”

Srinivasan views his work as a definitive statement on his successful integration, the culmination of his parents’ efforts. “Public service is, I think, the highest standard of belonging,” he said. “If you are responsible for carrying out the public trust, that means you have the trust of the public. If you have the trust of the public, you belong.”