Alaska governor backs down, will choose judge from existing slate of nominees

Last week, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy refused to appoint a state trial judge from the list of nominees provided to him by the Alaska Judicial Council, expressing concern that certain qualified applicants were “inexplicably” not included on the list. In response, Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger defended the existing selection process.

The governor and chief justice met to discuss the impasse earlier this week, and seem to have reached an understanding. Dunleavy has now agreed that he must choose a judge from the existing list of nominees. Publicly, the governor has pushed to broaden the list of nominees in the future, which is a perfectly sensible policy discussion to take up. In the meantime, it is good news that this particular kerfuffle has ended with minimal damage.

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.

Alaska governor refuses to follow state’s judicial nominating procedures

Alaska’s constitution, like that of many western states, embraces a merit selection process for judges. An independent nominating commission (here, the Alaska Judicial Council) reviews the applications of judicial aspirants and selects a slate of names, which it forwards to the governor, who in turn must choose a candidate from the slate. The system has operated without incident for sixty years … until now.

Governor Mike Dunleavy, provided with a slate of nominees for the Palmer Superior Court, has refused to name anyone to the open seat on the court. The governor’s reasoning appears to be that there were other qualified candidates who “inexplicably” (in his view) were not included among the nominating committee’s choices.

The governor has 45 days under state law to choose from among the candidates provided by the commission. Forty-five days have now passed, and no one is sure what will happen next. The state’s chief justice has defended the sanctity of the current nominating process.

The governor seems to be plainly in the wrong here. Merit selection systems deliberately divide the power of judicial appointments among multiple actors to reduce the risks of patronage and political partisanship. The governor does not appear to argue that the candidates provided by the commission were unacceptable, only that there are others he would prefer. That is not his prerogative. He should fill the seats with a qualified nominee provided by the commission, and give the state courts the judicial staffing they deserve.

 

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.

44 federal judicial nominees advance out of committee

In January, President Trump renewed the nominations of more than 50 people to serve as federal district and appellate judges. (These individuals had been previously nominated, but there nominations were not acted up before the end of the year, and had to be re-nominated for a new Congress.) Yesterday, 44 of the nominees passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, and will advance to the full Senate for a vote.

Several of the nominees passed on a 12-10 party-line vote. Others (primarily district court nominees) received little opposition from Senate Democrats. Courthouse News Service has a good roundup here.

I will leave commentary on Senator Cory Booker’s increasingly absurd committee histrionics for another day.

 

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.

Mazie Hirono is wrong, and she’s playing right into Donald Trump’s hands

My latest post at the New England Faculty Blog explains why the efforts of Senate Democrats to grill judicial nominees on their religious beliefs is both wrong as a matter of course, and a strategic blunder that the President is ready to exploit.