Tennessee considers bill to require legislative confirmation of judicial appointees

Tennessee uses a version of the Missouri Plan to select its state appellate judges. Known (unsurprisingly) as the Tennessee Plan, it calls for an independent nominating commission to present a slate of qualified candidates to the governor, who must appoint a judge from that slate. (This is akin to most merit selection plans around the country.) The judges then stand for retention elections.

Trial court vacancies are filled using a similar process. A nominating commission (whose members are appointed by the legislature) presents a slate of names to the governor within 60 days of a judicial vacancy, and the governor must choose a new judge from that slate.

Under the current system, legislators no direct role in filling judicial vacancies, but a bill working its way through the state legislature is aiming to change that. For new trial judges, House Bill 1257 would require the governor to provide a written notice of appointment to the clerk of each legislative chamber, which would trigger a 60-day period for each chamber to confirm the nominee. If both the Senate and House reject the nominee, or if even one chamber rejects the nominee by a two-thirds majority, the appointment would fail. If neither of these things happens within 60 days, however, the appointment would be deemed valid.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the legislature wanting to have a say in judicial appointments, but in the absence of a pressing concern about the current process, it’s hard to see why this is a good idea. The use of an independent commission is already designed to cut down the risks of partisanship or patronage, and to ensure qualified candidates. And because a nominee may not take the bench under this bill until legislative confirmation or the passage of sixty days after nomination, the judiciary would be left with longer periods of unfilled vacancies.

The bill has only worked its way through the House Judiciary Subcommittee, and has a long road to travel before becoming law. But it’s hard to see why this idea is particularly wise, necessary, or beneficial to those who rely on Tennessee courts to be efficient and effective.

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!

No more federal judicial confirmations this year

The Hill reports: Feeling heat from the left, Dems reject judges deal.

A Senate Democratic aide said Wednesday that [Chuck] Schumer would not agree to approve the final slate of judicial nominees as the Senate prepares to wrap up its work for the year.

Progressives skewered Schumer for agreeing to two previous deals this year, one in August and the other in October, when he signed off on a group of court picks in exchange for letting vulnerable incumbents head back to their home states to campaign before the November midterm election.

Current number of vacancies in the federal courts: 143.

 

Senate Republicans aim to confirm more than 40 more federal judges by year-end

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley indicated today his party’s desire to confirm 41 additional nominees to the federal bench by the end of the year. That number would include a replacement for Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit.

The bad blood between the Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, and more generally in the Senate, will make this a more difficult project. I can only hope that the Senators look beyond their partisan political aims and recognize the importance to the public of having a fully staffed judiciary. This is especially true for the 39 district court nominees, many of whom have been nominated to fill long-vacant seats on the bench.

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”