California’s federal judicial vacancies come to the forefront

With certain federal district courts operating with a profound number of judicial vacancies, court leaders are increasingly going public with the need to fully populate their benches. The most recent salvo has come from Chief Judge Virginia Phillips of the Central District of California, who wrote a letter to Senators Lindsey Graham, Dianne Feinstein, and Kamala Harris, urging them to find ways to fill the district’s vacancies.

The Central District of California, encompassing Los Angeles and environs, is authorized by federal law to have 28 active district judges. The Judicial Conference of the United States recently concluded that in fact, the district needs 38 full-time active judges to meet its workload. But the district is currently operating with only half that number (and nine formal vacancies). The last new judge was confirmed back in 2014.

The Central District has one of the heaviest workloads in the country, as measured by weighted caseload filings. Will California’s Democratic Senators and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican leadership do the right thing and fill those vacancies? As we enter another election year, it’s hard to be optimistic.

Surprise me, Senators. Do the right thing.

Party politics and judicial nominations in Michigan

The Detroit News has a fascinating and distressing story about how partisan politics are influencing judicial nominations in three different Michigan courts, covering both the federal and state levels of the judiciary.

Briefly, the state has two federal district court vacancies, one in the Western District of Michigan and one in the Eastern District. The vacancies have been difficult to fill because the Senate’s “blue slip” process essentially allows the state’s two Democratic senators to block the confirmations of any Trump nominees that they do not like. In light of this reality, state Republicans and Democrats worked out a compromise: the seat in the Eastern District would be filled by current Magistrate Judge Stephanie Davis, and the seat on in the Western District would be filled by a nominee supported by the Republican establishment. The plan would have made Davis the first African-American woman nominated to the federal bench by President Trump.

The pact fell apart, however, after Trump’s Western District nominee, Michael Bogren, lost the confidence of Senate Republicans. State Republicans scrambled to find a new nominee, and seemed to have landed on state appeals court judge Brock Swartzel. In the meantime, the Davis nomination was frozen in its tracks.

Then, out of nowhere, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra offered himself up as a nominee for the Western District vacancy. Zahra is a Republican (judges run for the bench with party affiliations in Michigan), and pledged to resign from the state supreme court if Trump nominated him and the state’s Senators agreed not to oppose his nomination. The move would allow a Democrat to be appointed to the state supreme court in his place, tipping the partisan balance of that court toward the Dems.

The article calls the proposal “a neat package” which, among other things, would allow Zahra to collect a federal salary as well as a state pension. But the partisan brazenness of the proposal is appalling, at least to this blogger. How could Zahra even pretend to be impartial if he was placed in the federal bench? And what role does he see for party affiliation on the trial bench, typically the least politicized aspect of the judiciary?

It is an increasingly popular take among partisans on both sides to criticize the judiciary as politicized and biased. Those concerns start with the judicial selection process, in which the very same partisans exert their dismal control.

Longest federal judicial vacancy gets another nominee

A seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which has been vacant for nearly fourteen years, may finally be filled after President Trump nominated UNC law professor Richard E. Myers II for the position on Wednesday.

The vacancy, which has been in place since the end of 2005, is a testament to the dereliction of constitutional duties by both the executive and legislative branches. George W. Bush originally nominated attorney Thomas Farr to the seat, but Senate Democrats twice blocked the nomination. President Obama then offered two different nominees for the same seat during his eight years in office, only to have both nominations blocked by home-state Republicans. President Trump renominated Farr to the seat in 2017, but no vote ever came to the Senate floor.

Partisans will surely argue that each of the opposing party’s nominees was unacceptable, and that North Carolinians are better off with no judge than with a bad one. But tell that to the people who have had to wait longer for their cases to resolve.

Good luck to Professor Myers, who deserves better treatment than previous nominees and at least a speedy and fair up-or-down vote.

New Jersey federal judges speak out on vacancy crisis

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey is authorized by law to have 17 active (i.e., full time) district judges. Since 2015, however, retirements have dwindled that number to 11 active judges. And simultaneously, the number of case filings has gone up 150 percent. As a result, the district today faces terrible docket congestion. The number of cases pending more than three years has more than doubled, and the total number of pending cases has more than tripled, over the last four years.

Now some of the district’s judges are speaking out. In a story published on NJ.com, Chief Judge Freda Wolfson insisted that Congress and the President should do their job and fill the vacancies.

While Wolfson said the judges continue to work around the clock and treat every case — no matter the magnitude — diligently, the sheer number of cases is going to inevitably slow down the process.

“We need help tremendously,” Wolfson said. “It is not just to relieve the burden on the judges. It is because we need to service the public as quickly as we can in a just manner.”

There is plenty of fault to go around. The Trump Administration has not put forward a single nomination for the District of New Jersey, even as it works to fill other judicial vacancies at a rapid pace. And in any event, neither of the state’s Democratic Senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, have suggested any willingness to work with the Administration on potential nominees.

As I wrote for The Hill back in March, judicial vacancy emergencies like this stress the capacity of the courts and damage the administration of justice in all cases — most of which are entirely apolitical, garden-variety disputes. Playing politics with judicial appointments is damaging and largely pointless.

Growing dockets, many vacancies in the federal courts

I have a new op-ed in The Hill, noting the unfortunate conflation of growth in federal case filing, the mass of ongoing judicial vacancies, and ugly partisanship in the judicial confirmation process. Key grafs:

These partisan inquisitions are embarrassing and wholly unnecessary. The vast majority of federal cases do not raise political questions. Whether a contract was breached or a patent infringed is neither a matter of liberal or conservative ideology nor one of broad significance. By contrast, the ongoing vacancies crisis in the courts is a matter of national concern. For private litigants, a shortage of judges means longer waits for trials and orders, and increased financial and emotional cost on clients resulting from the delays. For the general public, fewer judges means a justice system that is less efficient, less transparent, and even less trustworthy.

Just imagine if other important civic institutions such as police and fire services, churches and synagogues, and schools and hospitals had to rely entirely on politicians to meet their staffing needs. Imagine if the career of a promising doctor, teacher, or firefighter depended not on her relevant skills and experience, but whether she belonged to the right kind of civic organization or took the wrong stand on an issue in college. What kind of applicants would seek those jobs and run that gauntlet? What quality of employee would it ultimately produce? How long could people endure all the resulting delays and inefficiencies before it became too unbearable?

Please read the whole thing!

Tweeting judges: a cautionary tale

A little over a year ago, I took a close look at the phenomenon of judges using Twitter. After examining the professional and ethical responsibilities of the judiciary, I concluded that “judges should not be afraid of using Twitter, as long as they employ it appropriately and with discretion.”

That conclusion still holds, and most judges who are regular Twitter users find a way to make it work without compromising their judicial roles.  But Twitter is still a dangerous medium, as Kansas judge Jeffry Jack is learning this week. Judge Jack, currently a Labette County trial judge, has been nominated by Governor Laura Kelly to the state’s Court of Appeals. But his nomination has run into strong opposition from state lawmakers, after they discovered a number of profane and inflammatory tweets from his account, many of which were directed to President Trump and other prominent conservatives.

To be sure, some Republican lawmakers were already predisposed to vote against Jack’s nomination, based on purely partisan factors such as his apparent support for gun control and the Affordable Care Act. But even Democratic legislators were taken aback by the ferocity and crudeness of Jack’s tweets:

Sen. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat who attended a Friday news conference where Kelly nominated Jack, said some of the tweets do not demonstrate a proper judicial temperament.

“If these are genuine, I find them to be deeply troubling coming from a sitting judge,” Miller said.

Exactly. Judges, like all people, are entitled to their political views, and there is nothing wrong with holding those views very strongly. But the judiciary depends on its members displaying an even-handed temperament and maintaining a high level of professional behavior even in their personal lives. Judge Jack’s tweets do not display that temperament, and they raise questions not only about his fitness for an appellate court position, but also for maintaining his current trial job.

Yesterday, Governor Kelly withdrew Jack’s nomination. But don’t be surprised if his tweets become an issue if seeks to retain his trial seat when his current term ends in 2020.

This posted was edited on March 20 to correct the spelling of Judge Jack’s name.

Kamala Harris doesn’t care about the judiciary

That’s the only reasonable interpretation of her stunning announcement that she will preemptively oppose any federal appellate court nominee put forth by President Trump. This is naked politics in its worst form: in an effort to score points with her political base and show off her willingness to resist the President, she is ready to deprive an entire branch of government the basic resources it needs to operate.

One might conclude that it’s all sound and fury, given that the Republicans control the Senate, and Harris’s Judiciary Committee vote will rarely be dispositive. But what an ugly precedent it sets. Should the junior senator from California succeed in her presidential aspirations, she will have set the stage for others to reject her own nominees sight unseen.

And of course, the judiciary is the body that truly suffers from this silly posturing. There are currently twelve vacancies on the federal circuit courts of appeal, half of which are on Harris’s home circuit, the Ninth Circuit. Those vacancies put pressure on the remaining judges to process heavy dockets with inadequate resources, leading to worse outcomes for criminal defendants, civil litigants, and the entire court system.

Senator Mitch McConnell was rightly criticized for failing to schedule a vote on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016. That was ugly power politics, and this is no different. Democrats should reject unequivocally Senator Harris’s absurd and counterproductive policy.