Judicial qualifications and the modern political calculus

As Jordy Singer points out in Experiential diversity on the Supreme Court is a pipe dream — at least for now, his response to my recent post, “[i]n states in with nominating commissions, conscientious governors, and reasonable judicial turnover,” the kind of careful judicial selection practiced in Massachusetts and Colorado “is possible. But it doesn’t work that way in most states, and certainly not at the federal level.”

I don’t disagree with this assessment. One difference, though, is that, while it doesn’t work in most states as it does in Massachusetts or Colorado due to the state’s constitutional or statutory design, the process of judicial selection at the federal level—at least, at the level of the Supreme Court—is almost purely a matter of choice. Indeed, it is most often a matter of political choice. And while, realistically, the qualifications of potential Supreme Court justices may not be changing any time soon, we should not give up on the normative arguments for such change. This is not to suggest that the politics will eventually become less important in the selection of Supreme Court justices, but that, within the realm of political choice, Presidents and Senate majorities might one day think beyond the limited qualifications that today’s nominees uniformly possess—qualifications essentially defined by pedigree.

Singer notes the incentives for the President “to nominate a sitting judge with sterling credentials,” which deters the opposition from “play[ing] games with the confirmation of such a highly qualified candidate.” His cites as an example Harriet Miers, President George W. Bush’s original choice to replace retiring associate justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2005. Miers was White House Counsel; her prior experience included many years as a corporate lawyer in a large firm, and she served as the head of both the Dallas Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas, as well as chair of the Texas Lottery Commission and as an elected member of the Dallas City Council—a record of accomplishment and service of which any lawyer would rightly be proud, and a record of experience that might reasonably be thought to inform many issues that might come before the U.S. Supreme Court in areas such as municipal law, the practice of law, civil procedure, and the regulation of lawyers.

On the other hand, Miers never served as a judge in any state or federal court, or taught as a law school professor, or litigated constitutional cases before any court, much less the U.S. Supreme Court. Oh, and she earned her law degree at Southern Methodist University. But the absence of typically elite credentials did not fuel Democratic opposition to her nomination; rather, that opposition came from within, as pressure from Republicans within and without the Senate ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of her candidacy. At least one conservative commentator put a fine point on her nomination: “The Supreme Court is an elite institution,” Charles Krauthammer wrote. “It is not one of the ‘popular’ branches of government.”

Interestingly, what was known at the time of Miers’s views on many of the issues of most concern to a Republican President suggests she would have consistently voted with majorities to curtail the right to choose, embrace the right to bear arms, and respect state sovereignty. Indeed, it is far from clear how many cases would have turned out very differently had she, and not O’Connor’s eventual successor, Samuel Alito, made it to the Court.

The elitism that contributed to the downfall of the Miers nomination was not the result of any constitutional or statutory rule. It simply reflected a modern political calculation, one that has hardened into an expectation. Any President—or Senate Judiciary Committee—could insist that it be changed. And change may come, should political majorities coalesce around the belief that the lives and experiences of Supreme Court justices should not be so distant from those of most American lawyers—or, indeed, most Americans—as to cast a shadow on the legitimacy of judicial decision-making that affects every one of us.

Experiential diversity on the Supreme Court is a pipe dream — at least for now

Lawrence Friedman’s recent post lays out a compelling case for achieving educational and experiential diversity on the Supreme Court. He looks to the states for guidance, noting that courts of last resort at the state level frequently feature highly qualified justices who graduated from a wide range of law schools and who feature an extensive variety of practice experience.

It’s a tantalizing analogy, which works well in some states but doesn’t translate to the federal level. Still, there are glimmers of hope for more experiential diversity in future iterations of the Supreme Court. More below. Continue reading “Experiential diversity on the Supreme Court is a pipe dream — at least for now”

“Myths and Realities” about Trump’s judicial appointments

Many politicians, advocacy groups, and journalists have written about President Trump’s federal judicial appointments over his first three years, with the dominant narrative being that he has transformed the judiciary by appointing more judges, with more far-right leaning ideologies, than any President in history.

Russell Wheeler looks at the data underlying these assertions, and finds the story to be much more nuanced. As with everything Russell writes, the post is worth an immediate and careful read.

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.

Feeling the squeeze, New Jersey’s federal court may borrow judges from Pennsylvania

I previously reported on the judicial vacancy crisis in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The court, entitled to 17 active district judges by law (and recommended to have 20), is now operating with only 11 active judges due to a recent spate of retirements. Making matters worse is the district’s docket — the second heaviest in the nation — and the fact that President Trump has not nominated a single candidate to fill the district’s judicial vacancies.

Chief Judge Freda Wolfson has not been shy about discussing the challenges facing her court. Unable to replace judges on its own, the district is seeking creative ways to manage its docket, including encouraging parties to consent to trial by magistrate, turning away multidistrict litigation, and borrowing “visiting” judges from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The use of visiting judges is not new, and the federal courts have shared judicial resources to the extent permitted by law for nearly a century. Indeed, in the early 1920s Chief Justice Taft (a favorite of this blog) proposed a “flying squadron” of judges who would not be assigned to any specific district but would instead be available to serve in any district where needs were the highest. That suggestion was rejected by Congress, but even today the courts show their ability to adapt to resource deficiencies beyond their control, and beyond their ability to remedy directly.