How far can Congress probe the judicial thought process?

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Josh Blackman has a fascinating post (really, a series of posts) about the efforts of ten Democratic Senators to force two Eleventh Circuit judges to “explain” their involvement in Florida’s felon disenfranchisement cases.

The brief background is this: the Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument on a challenge to state legislation conditioning the restoration of a convicted felon’s right to vote on the payment of legal financial obligations. Two of the Justices on the court at the time, Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa, had been nominated for seats on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Both Justices asked questions during oral argument, but were confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit just weeks later. Accordingly, neither Justice had any role in the outcome of the case.

On July 15 the plaintiffs, having sought review in federal court, requested that both judges recuse themselves from the Eleventh Circuit’s deliberations. The request was grounded on the fact that the judges had merely asked questions during oral argument while on the Florida Supreme Court, even though they had taken no part in the decision. (This was factually reminiscent of the Ninth Circuit case of Yovino v. Rizo, involving a judge who had voted on a case but died before it was announced; here, however, the judges did not vote at all.)

Professor Blackman had a very sensible take whether recusal was necessary in the Eleventh Circuit case:

Judges are allowed to change their views. And that malleability is a good thing. I would be troubled if judges walked into arguments with a set predisposition, that could not be disturbed.

Yovino¬†demonstrates that a Judge’s questions during oral arguments, and even a conference vote, are not “immutable.” Judges are allowed to keep an open mind till late in the game. These preliminary matters are not enough to question a judge’s impartiality. The only decision that counts is the final order. Judges Luck and Lagoa did not participate in the Florida Supreme Court’s published decision. Therefore, they are not disqualified.

But it’s 2020, and legal arguments aren’t good enough for the political class. Hence, the subpoenas. Blackman’s take (which you should read in its entirety) concludes:

I have serious doubts about whether Congress has the power to subpoena a judge to testify about internal judicial matters. I think Congress could justify that subpoena as part of an impeachment inquiry. But a general need for information to craft legislation would not be suitable.

I am not a constitutional scholar, but that strikes me as correct.

Federal magistrate judges on the move

Over the past ten days, while everyone has focused on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, the Senate has quietly confirmed the appointments of fifteen new federal district judges. Twelve of the fifteen judges were confirmed by voice vote.

Interestingly, this new batch of federal judges already has extraordinary judicial experience. Ten of the fifteen are currently sitting on the bench in a different capacity, and seven are on the federal bench, either as magistrate judges or bankruptcy judges. Each of their respective seats will need to be filled in short order — although they will be filled by local committees rather than presidential nomination. It’s another example of judicial appointment cascades that naturally result from the rapid filling of federal vacancies.

The federal judges moving down the hall to district court chambers include:

  • Terry Moorer (Magistrate Judge, Southern District of Alabama)
  • R. Stan Baker (Magistrate Judge, Southern District of Georgia)
  • Charles Barnes Goodwin (Magistrate Judge, Western District of Oklahoma)
  • Susan Paradise Baxter (Magistrate Judge, Western District of Pennsylvania)
  • C.J. Williams (Magistrate Judge, Southern District of Iowa)
  • Robert Summerhays (Bankruptcy Judge, Western District of Louisiana)
  • Alan Albright (Magistrate Judge, Western District of Texas)

One other note: the Senate also confirmed a batch of six district judges on August 1, and none of them had prior judicial experience. So perhaps the confirmation of so many sitting magistrates at once is purely a coincidence. An interesting trend nonetheless…

A rapid judicial appointment cascade

The White House recently announced that President Trump had nominated Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum to a seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Quattlebaum currently sits as a federal district judge in South Carolina–a position he has held for only two months.

There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to promote* Judge Quattlebaum to the appellate bench. But choosing a sitting district judge will once again create a vacancy in South Carolina, and that vacancy may take much longer to fill. Politics may well dictate filling appellate benches, especially in election years. But the trial courts, the place where the public most closely and commonly interacts with the judicial system, risk becoming the forgotten child. They deserve to filled as rapidly, and with as much care, as do appellate court vacancies.

* Many on the federal district bench would quibble with this term: the trial judges are the real judges! I use it here only in the sense that the Fourth Circuit is higher in the federal hierarchy.