On Monday, the President nominated ten individuals for federal judgeships — five on the circuit courts of appeal, four on the district courts, and one on the U.S. Court of Claims. Three of the ten (Joan Larsen of Michigan, David Stras of Minnesota, and David Nye of Idaho) currently sit on state courts — Larsen and Stras on their state supreme courts, and Nye on his state’s trial bench.
The value of state court experience for federal judges has not been discussed much, but it should be. An intimate knowledge of state law and state court operations is surprisingly useful for the federal bench. And appointing federal judges from the state courts has valuable ripple effects for the states as well. More after the jump.
For federal district court nominees like Judge Nye, the knowledge of state law and practice will confer a daily benefit. As every first-year law student learns, federal district courts are often called upon to apply state law in the cases before them. Federal district judges are also given substantial discretion in some areas to determine whether certain claims — or entire cases — are better situated in state court or federal court. So, for example, federal judges must decide whether a state court case removed to federal court really belongs in state court and should be remanded. Similarly, they must decide whether federal cases filed under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) or Multiparty, Multiforum Trial Jurisdiction Act (MMTJA) are more appropriately litigated in state court. And they must decide whether to decline to exercise federal jurisdiction over certain supplemental claims because those claims would be best resolved by a state tribunal.
If the civil procedure-speak is making your head spin, here is the broader point: federal trial judges routinely have to make decisions that apply state law in federal cases or send issues back to state courts altogether. A federal judge who understands his or her state’s law, and appreciates the procedures, customs, and culture of the state courts, is at an advantage over those who do not.
Nominees to the federal appellate bench arguably incur fewer of these benefits, since their work is more heavily focused on reviewing district court decisions for error than on application of the law in the first instance. But appellate courts still must have a working knowledge of the state laws in their circuits. As importantly, judges with state court experience bring to the federal courts of appeal a perspective on state court operations and an appreciation for state law that may translate into a stronger appreciation for our complex system of federalism. Finally, state appellate judges, who already work in an environment where collegiality is typically valued, may bring that openness and sense of collegiality to the federal bench as well.
There is another benefit from appointing state judges to the federal system — this time for the states themselves. A vacancy created on the state courts allows for the state’s governor to appoint a qualified replacement. Even in states where judges are typically chosen by partisan election, governors (or occasionally legislatures) have the authority to appoint judges to judicial vacancies. Those appointments, in turn, are often made with the advice of a nominating or screening commission, which in turn usually makes its selections from a pool of qualified candidates. Moving David Stras or Joan Larsen to the federal courts of appeals, for example, would open vacancies on the state supreme courts of Minnesota and Michigan, respectively — openings that can be filled thoughtfully with the assistance of a commission. The newly appointed judge will still have to face the voters, of course, but will have the benefits of incumbency and a judicial record (however slight) to go on.
Best wishes to all the new nominees.