Chief Justice Roberts: “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges”

Responding to President Trump’s characterization of a federal district judge who had ruled against the administration’s asylum policy as “an Obama judge,” Chief Justice John Roberts issued a statement rejecting the notion entirely.

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

In a tweet, the President later responded, “Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have ‘Obama judges,’ and they have a much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country.”

The situation is a bit more nuanced than either side’s statements suggest, of course. The Chief Justice is correct that the federal judiciary is composed of extraordinary individuals who try to do their best, irrespective of the parties or issues in a case. But each judge also cannot help but apply the law in a manner informed by personal experience and beliefs. It is far too crass for the President to assert that his legal setback was due to an “Obama judge,” but he is not entirely wrong that the judge in question might have viewed the issue differently than some of his peers on the district court bench.

Still, three cheers for the Chief Justice, trying to maintain the legitimacy of the judiciary in the face of ongoing populist attacks.

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…

Scenes from a tire fire: Day One of the Kavanaugh hearings

Yesterday’s first day of confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh was a colossal embarrassment for everyone, save perhaps the nominee himself. It began with a series of sophomoric interruptions from protesters inside the Senate chamber–an undignified and unfortunate extension of our current national tantrum, which increasingly values volume and resistance over logic or civility. Watching the early minutes of the hearing, I kept waiting for a member of the committee–Chairman Grassley, or for that matter any of the Democrats within whose camp the protesters fell–to make explicit that such interruptions were entirely inappropriate and undignified. I waited in vain. As it was, the ongoing shrieks made it appear that no one really was in control of the moment.

It went largely downhill from there, culminating later in the day in an appalling libel of Judge Kavanaugh’s former clerk Zina Bash by social media trolls on the left, who accused Bash–a Mexican-born granddaughter of Holocaust survivors–of being a white supremacist. The whole event was a sad display of our dysfunctional politics, and a good example of the behavior that judges work to prevent in their own courtrooms.

Indeed, yesterday’s hearing sorely needed a presiding judge–an authority figure with some spine, wisdom, knowledge, and confidence. Nowhere was that better illustrated than during the interminable debate among committee members about the late-produced (or still withheld) documents relating to Judge Kavanaugh’s career. Continue reading “Scenes from a tire fire: Day One of the Kavanaugh hearings”

Kavanaugh hearings livestream

The confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh commenced this morning in Washington, DC. The hearings began with a series of objections by Democratic members of the committee to tens of thousands of pages of documents that have been withheld by the White House.

The livestream of the hearings (from CSPAN) can be found here.

 

Examining the impact of President Trump’s judicial appointments

It has been widely reported that President Trump is filling federal judicial vacancies at a much faster pace than his predecessors. But the political impact of that pace is blunted by several factors, including the fact that most existing vacancies were created by the retirement of a previous Republican appointee, and the fact that many circuit courts continue to be dominated by Democratic appointees.

Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution provides an outstanding analysis of the impact of the President’s judicial appointments here. It is highly recommended reading, as is everything Russell writes on this and related issues.

Some quick thoughts on the Kavanaugh nomination

A few quick hits on President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court:

  1. Predictions are easy to make, and hard to make correctly. If I were better at this, I would have moved to Vegas already.
  2. Judge Kavanaugh will be subject to the same partisan rancor that has infected our federal judicial nomination process for nearly two decades. But he is surely qualified for the Supreme Court. His dozen years on the D.C. Circuit, as well as his educational and professional background, more than qualify him.
  3. That said, I firmly believe that the President would have been more politically expedient for the President to nominate Joan Larsen (or one of several other former state supreme court justices) for the seat. Judge Kavanaugh is a “safe” pick in part because he has the profile of a consummate Washington insider. Born and raised in Bethesda, his professional career has primarily been spent within the federal government, and he doesn’t appear to have spent much time at all outside the Beltway. (Yale and two clerkships seem to be the bulk of his non-D.C. experience). President Trump had a real opportunity to woo voters in Middle America with a non-East Coast pick, and there were several highly qualified nominees of that sort on his 25-person short list. It is disappointing that someone with greater familiarity with America beyond the Beltway wasn’t picked.
  4. In the same vein, and despite Judge Kavanaugh’s credentials, I am also disappointed that another D.C. Circuit judge will populate the Supreme Court. The Court already has three D.C. Circuit alums (Roberts, Thomas, and Ginsburg). The D.C. Circuit is an important court, to be sure, but it hardly needs four justices out of nine with that limited perspective.
  5. I thought Trump would nominate a woman, if only to create a political advantage over the identity politics-obsessed Democrats in the Senate. The Kavanaugh nomination indicates that Trump was not interested in engaging that dynamic this time around. But it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t revisit it soon. Perhaps he is counting on another vacancy opening in the next two years; if Justice Ginsburg retires, he could nominate a woman (perhaps an even more seasoned Joan Larsen) and really watch the fur fly.
  6. From the perspective of the courts themselves (and, after all, that’s what this blog is about), the Kavanaugh nomination means more judicial cascades to come. Assuming the nomination is successful, Trump will now have the opportunity to fill Judge Kavanaugh’s D.C. Circuit seat with a (presumably) younger judge of the same qualifications and ideological bent. If he pulls such a judge from the district court ranks, he will have another vacancy for the trial courts as well. Given the record pace with which he is nominating (and the Senate is confirming) federal judges, the courts will have a continued infusion of relatively young (Gen X) judges at all levels.