Last week, the progressives in New York’s General Assembly effectively killed the nomination of Justice Hector LaSalle to be the Chief Justice of the New York Court of Appeals. As I have documented previously, the opposition had nothing to do with LaSalle’s qualifications or experience, but rather a ginned-up power play over Governor Kathy Hochul. In doing so, they prevented LaSalle from becoming the first Hispanic Chief Judge of the high court.
Identity sure seems to matter to progressives — until it doesn’t.
More broadly, Albany’s progressives are joyfully gutting a coequal branch of government in order to engage in an intramural fight with the governor. The Court of Appeals, in need of a Chief Justice for months, remains without an administrative leader. And the entire state court system has been deprived of leadership with respect to their everyday work.
All New Yorkers should be outraged on this assault on their judiciary. The consequences will become evident soon enough.
New Jersey’s court system currently has 65 judicial vacancies, leading one lawmaker to propose raising the state’s mandatory retirement age for judges in order keep exising jurists on the bench.
Like many states, New Jersey currently requires its judges to retire at age 70. But a mandatory retirement system presumes that the state will quickly fill judicial seats as they become vacant. In fact, both Governor Phil Murphy and the state legislature have been slow to act on existing vacancies, creating a crisis so significant that nearly eighty retired judges have been temporarily called back into service to help clear the caseload backlog.
State Senator Shirley Turner is proposing raising the mandatory judicial retirement age to 75. It is a stopgap measure, to be sure. The only way to solve the crisis is for the other branches of state government to take their nomination and confirmation responsibilities seriously.
The situation in New Jersey perfectly illustrates the resource challenges that court systems must navigate in the 2020s. The heightened politicization of every aspect of American life has led the executive and legislative branches to treat each judicial vacancy as an zero-sum partisan event. (See the current kerfuffle in New York.) Meanwhile the courts, unable to secure the human resources they need to address their dockets and unable to control the flow of cases into the system, have to resort to recalls and other strategies to keep up with their workload. No wonder public confidence in every branch of government is in decline.
Justice Hector LaSalle’s nomination for Chief Justice of the New York Court of Appeals has received additional support from a wide range of sources, including a dozen former judges, former Governor David Paterson, and some members of the Republican minority in the New York General Assembly. LaSalle’s nomination is currently being held up by partisans and progressive activists in Governor Kathy Hochul’s own party.
If Justice LaSalle is not the man for the job, by all means let that be reflected in debate and a final vote. But to try to sink that debate before it begins, especially when his nomination followed a well-structured and established process, is strong-arm politics at its most cynical.
The resignation of New York’s Chief Justice Janet DeFiore a few months ago has given Governor Kathy Hochul an opportunity to appoint the new chief of the state’s Court of Appeals. But an ultra-progressive contingent in the state legislature is turning the appointment process into a circus wholly unbefitting the judiciary.
Under New York’s judicial selection procedures, Governor Hochul must choose from among the candidates recommended by the state’s Commission on Judicial Nomination. The Commission presented the governor with a list of seven candidates in late November, and she ultimately nominated Hector LaSalle, a longtime Justice on the state’s Appellate Division. That is when the trouble started. Progressive activists immediately rejected Justice LaSalle as one of three so-called “conservative” judges whose appointment would be “unacceptable.” LaSalle’s crime? “[F]requently dissenting from majority opinions [on the appellate division] that reversed criminal defendants’ convictions.”
At last count, the progressives have convinced at least 13 state legislators, including “Democratic Socialist” Jabari Brisport, to vote against LaSalle. This may be enough to kill the nomination.
Given LaSalle’s long and distinguished judicial career, including almost a decade on the Appellate Division bench (where he was appointed by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo), it is disgraceful to watch his nomination be undermined by the ugliest kind of partisan activism. All the more so because LaSalle comes with the highest recommendations from the New York State Trial Lawyers Association and the New York State Bar Association, two organziations that actually know what they are talking about.
But it gets even worse. Hochul herself does not appear to have chosen LaSalle because of his legal chops, but rather primarily because of his demographic identity. She is apparently set on appointing a Latino to the state’s highest court, and LaSalle was the only candidate on the seven-person slate that fit that bill. So the nomination will go forward to an ugly and uncertain vote, with everything centered on the judge’s ethnicity and activists’ wish lists, and absolutely nothing focused on his judicial skill, experience, temperament, or leadership ability.
What a shame.
Josh Blackman has some interesting comments on two federal appellate judges — one a Reagan appointee, the other a Clinton appointee — who rescinded their decisions to take senior status after learning, to their dissatisfaction, the identity of the nominees who would replace them. (Note the excellent reporting by David Lat.)
There is something deeply unseemly about this. Two rescissions do not necessarily represent a trend, but as Professor Blackman points out, conditioning senior status on the appointment of a chosen successor would effectively give judges a veto power over presidential nominations. This poses obvious problems for both the general balance of power in the federal government and our Constitutional fabric.
The question is what to do about it. I see nothing in the governing statute that expressly forbids this type of gamesmanship. But there are certainly some opportunities for soft power responses. For one thing, the President need not kowtow to a judge’s demand for a specific nominee; if President Biden and his successors simply refuse to allow sitting judges to influence the nomination process, the likelihood of particularized conditional declarations of senior status will probably just dry up.
It’s also possible for powers within the federal court system to respond. Neither the Chief Justice nor the Judicial Conference has coercive power to prevent judges from declaring conditional senior status. But they do have other forms of influence. It is hard to believe that a call from the Chief Justice, or a sternly worded communique from one’s peers about preserving the legitimacy and apolitical culture of the judiciary, wouldn’t make a difference to many on the bench.
To be sure, the federal court system needs judges to take senior status periodically. It is an important means of bringing in new blood and coping with voluminous dockets (since senior judges do not count against each district and circuit’s statutory allocation of active judges). But the internal culture also has to be preserved, and slowing some judges from taking senior status in order to maintain legitimacy is surely the right call.
Joe Biden’s Very Bad Week continues with this unnecessarily tone-deaf press release about his latest round of federal judicial nominees. The nominees themselves are outstanding and highly qualified, and most have judicial experience at the state or federal level. Indeed, several of the nominees have been federal magistrate judges, which gives them special insight into the nuts and bolts of common procedures like arraignments (on the criminal side) and discovery disputes (on the civil side).
But that evidently matters less to the President (and his advisors) than the nominees’ race and gender. The primary focus of the press release is on the number of Latina and Black nominees in this slate. Nothing is said up front about any of their accomplishments (except in very vague and broad language) or (in several cases) their relative youth, assuring the potential for a multi-decade career on the bench. It’s an insult to the nominees, at what should be a great moment in their legal careers, to reduce them to demographic avatars for the purpose of promoting a political agenda.
Let’s give the nominees some of the credit they deserve. Buried deep in the press release, we learn about this slate’s extraordinary diversity of legal experience: on the bench, as both prosecutors and public defenders, in the legal academy, and in private practice in areas ranging from family law to intellectual property. Some even have experience with social work and public education. That range of experience, and the different perspectives is must inculcate, will help the entire federal judicary — both in the courtroom and behind the scenes.
Congratulations to all the nominees.
Five of President Biden’s judicial nominees advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. Two court of appeals nominees, including D.C. Circuit nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, passed on narrow majorities. Three dsitrict court nominees sailed through with large majorities.
Judge Jackson won the support of two Republican Senators, Lindsay Graham and John Cornyn, and passed to the full Senate with a final committee vote of 13-9. That someone as accomplished as Jackson received nine “no” votes is a clear sign of our political dysfunction. Senator Chuck Grassley, who voted against Jackson, explained that “unless a circuit court nominee can show me that he or she is affirmatively committed to the constitution as affirmatively understood, I don’t think that he or she should be confirmed.”
One point to Senator Grassley for honesty, but a three-point deduction for damaging partisanship. Yes, the D.C. Circuit has become the most ideological of the circuit courts, and yes, there is reason for the GOP to be concerned about the Democrats’ transparent effort to pack that court and then funnel all federal elections challenges through it. But elections have consequences, and no one should expect that a Biden nominee will be a committed originalist. Grassley’s bright-line rule for appellate nominees places him squarely in the camp of noted Third Branch emasculators Kamala Harris and Mazie Hirono.
In recent years, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have generated a long list of wildly inappropriate questions and comments regarding the religious backgrounds of federal judicial candidates. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) has led the charge, backed up by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and others.
Now they’re back at it. Last week Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked New Jersey district court nominee Zahid Quraishi, “What do you know about Sharia law?”
Quraishi, currently a U.S. Magistrate Judge with outstanding legal credentials, responded that he knew nothing about Sharia. (Quraishi was and raised in New Jersey, the son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants.) And there is no reason to believe that he would, other than Senate Democrats’ obsession with stereotyping individual Americans based on their ethnic backgrounds.
It’s important to understand exactly how bad a question this was. First, it has nothing at all to do with Quraishi’s ability to perform the job for which he has been nominated. Whether Quaraishi has never heard of Sharia, or whether he is a renowned Sharia scholar, should make no difference in his ability to oversee trials and apply U.S. law as a federal district judge. Second, the question itself put Quraishi in an impossible situation: whatever answer he gave would be bound to erode support from some segment of the population. (And indeed, some Muslim groups are apparently now rethinking their support of his nomination simply because of his honest answer.)
This was an entirely unforced error by Durbin, who half-apologized for the question in advance but still showed the utter lack of intelligence to ask it.
As best I can tell, Zahid Quraishi is a classic American success story. His nomination should rise or fall on his qualifications, not the political or cultural identity that others wish upon him.
Keep an eye on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the newest nominee to the D.C. Circuit.
President Biden has issued his first list of intended judicial nominees, mostly to federal district courts across the country. They are a highly accomplished and — as best I can tell — highly qualified group of nominees.
Perusing the list, I’m going to call my shot now and predict that whenever an opening on the Supreme Court occurs, the President’s first nominee will be Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Judge Jackson is already a well-respected federal district judge, and is set to be nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She therefore follows the path of other budding judicial stars who were elevated to the circuit courts before an eventual Supreme Court nomination by the same president. (Justice Amy Coney Barrett is the most recent example.) Judge Jackson also checks all the boxes: she is brilliant, accomplished, hard-working, well-respected, relatively young, and (important for Biden’s camp, at least) a Black woman. She is also kind, professional, and gracious — at least that is the clear memory I have from the time we overlapped as litigation associates at Goodwin Procter nearly twenty years ago.
Predictably, much of the mainstream media is focusing on the race and gender of the nominees, rather than their exceptional talent and qualifications. This does a remarkable disservice both to the nominees and the public. It reduces a lifetime of individual hard work, achievement — and yes, most assuredly some luck — to a crass demographic calculation. And it communicates that their skills and abilities are secondary to their immutable characteristics, a message that can only reduce confidence in judicial decisions and the court system as a whole.
Congratulations to all the nominees. The country will better off with your skill and talent filling our open judgeships.
The new administration is borrowing from Trump’s playbook, not Obama’s.
Three weeks into the Biden administration, the new President’s approach to the judicial branch is coming into focus. It looks a lot like that of his immediate predecessor, with a heavy focus on appointing federal judges and advancing court-related policies that satisfy the ruling party’s ideological litmus test.
Biden entered the White House with only 46 vacancies on the federal bench, and several pending nominations remaining from Trump’s final weeks. But when the runoff elections in Georgia produced a 50-50 Senate and the ability of Vice President Harris to serve as a tiebreaker, the calculus on judicial appointments changed. The White House rescinded all of the pending Trump-era nominations and put out a call for its own nominees. More conspicuously, progressive activists and academics began urging older federal judges to take senior status, a designation which would keep them on the bench with a reduced caseload, but which (more importantly) would open additional vacancies at the district court and circuit court level.
Biden last week also rejected any formal role for the American Bar Association in pre-vetting federal judicial nominees, a stunning move for a Democratic President. The ABA’s process focuses on a nominee’s ideologically neutral qualifications, like experience and temperament. For generations, its ratings of nominees has served as an additional quality check — and since most nominees are deemed qualified or well-qualified, an additional stamp of approval that can help with Senate confirmation. When Donald Trump rejected the ABA’s vetting role in early 2017, I described the action as an “unforced error.” And indeed, it was — the ABA continued to vet the nominees even without the President’s blessing, and identified a handful of candidates who were plainly unqualified for the federal bench. Rejecting the ABA four years ago opened the door for criticism that Trump’s nominations were based more on ideology than skill and competence; rejecting it now will open the identical door for Biden. Continue reading “What should we expect of Biden when it comes to the judiciary?”