Washington’s senators ask President to honor work of their judicial screening committee

In several states, the two senators collectively create a screening committee to recommend names of local attorneys and state judges to the President for a federal judicial appointment. The committees are not mandatory, and have been used somewhat haphazardly over time, but they do allow senators to provide useful information to the President about qualified individuals for the federal bench. The committees also help lock the senators in when home-state openings arise: by pre-screening a list of possible candidates, the senators are essentially telling the President that they will support any nominee who comes from that list. Such advance agreement avoids the embarrassment that Senator Michael Bennett must have felt earlier this month when, for purely partisan reasons, he had to vote against an extremely well-qualified fellow Coloradan, Neil Gorsuch, for the Supreme Court. Continue reading “Washington’s senators ask President to honor work of their judicial screening committee”

U.S. Courts unveils updated FJC website

The Federal Judicial Center, the research arm of the federal courts, has updated its website.  It’s terrific — clean, easy to search, and filled with important and interesting studies commissioned by the Judicial Conference and its various committees over the years.  A must for researchers or any individuals interested in the workings of the federal courts.

The President’s unforced error on ABA vetting

There are more than 100 openings on the federal district courts, most of which will be filled by nominees who have never held judicial office. A strong early rating from the ABA would not only smooth the confirmation process, but would send a positive signal to the public.

President Trump has apparently decided not to invite the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Judiciary to review the professional qualifications of his lower federal judicial nominees, stating that “the administration does ‘not intend to give any professional organizations special access to our nominees.'”  This move is not unprecedented, but it is deeply short-sighted.

Continue reading “The President’s unforced error on ABA vetting”

Federal criminal prosecutions fall to lowest level since 1997

The Pew Research Center breaks down the latest statistics.  The drop was fueled by significant declines in prosecutions for drug, immigration, and property offenses.

The 3% drop in criminal filings last year was offset by a 5% increase in federal civil filings, so the federal district courts overall experienced a 3% increase in filings for Fiscal Year 2016.

Federal judge who blocked executive order receives death threats

Several news outlets have reported that Judge Derrick Watson, of the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii, has received death threats in the wake of his March 15 order enjoining the enforcement of President Trump’s revised travel ban.

This is not the first time American judges have been threatened, and certainly won’t be the last.  Fortunately, the U.S. Marshals and local police take such threats very seriously.

New release of federal criminal justice data — only 3% of cases go to trial

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released its newest data on the federal criminal justice system, from 2013-14.  Among the highlights:

  • During 2014, federal law enforcement made 165,265 arrests, a 12% decrease from 188,164 arrests in 2013.
  • In 2014, the five federal judicial districts along the U.S.-Mexico border accounted for 61% of federal arrests, 55% of suspects investigated, and 39% of offenders sentenced to federal prison.
  • There were 81,881 federal immigration arrests made in 2014—one-half of all federal arrests.
  • Ninety-one percent of felons in cases terminated in U.S. district court in 2014 were convicted as the result of a guilty plea, 6% were dismissed, and 3% received a jury or bench trial.

While the data themselves are about two years behind, they obviously inform current policy debates.  The entire statistical package also gives a better sense of the coordination between the federal courts and the DEA, U.S. Marshals, federal prison system, and federal prosecutors.

Gorsuch hearing preview: A moment where state ties trump partisanship

Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch begin today with the introduction of the nominee by his home state senators, Michael Bennett and Cory Gardner of Colorado.  It is a nice bipartisan tradition for the home-state senators to introduce all federal judicial nominees, presumably dating back to a time when the rest of the Senate was not assumed to be familiar with a candidate.  While almost all post-Robert Bork Supreme Court hearings have been contentious at times — usually unnecessarily so — it is a nod to decorum that the Senate still begins every hearing with such a welcoming gesture.

Home-state bipartisanship in judicial selection is not just a matter of courtesy. Senators from many states have developed bipartisan screening committees to help them recommend qualified candidates for lower federal judgeships to the President.  These screening committees review the qualifications of those interested in judgeships on federal district courts and circuit courts of appeal, and pass the names along to the home state senators, who then pass along names to the President.  While the President has ultimate discretion in choosing a nominee for any Article III judgeship, the use of screening committees effectively pre-ratifies the candidate, and helps ensure a much smoother confirmation process.  The Supreme Court represents a special circumstance where screening committees are not used, but we can hope that both President Trump and the Senate will continue to rely on them where appropriate in considering lower court nominees.

We will be following the Gorsuch hearings this week, with commentary to follow on how the hearings reflect and impact the current relationship between Congress and the courts.