The West Virginia legislature has been busy introducing new bills that would affect the state courts. One bill would add magistrate judges to the court system and give all state magistrates a salary increase. Another bill would require that the state supreme court hear all appeals as of right.
Neither of these ideas is new — the magistrate bill was introduced without success in previous years, and the state supreme court already hears all appeals by court rule. But the bills are still significant. The magistrate bill acknowledges the continued resource needs of the court system in a state with a growing population. And the appeals bill, while merely codifying an existing practice, represents a carefully considered tradeoff between imposing burdens on the supreme court and the cost of creating an intermediate appellate court. At minimum, these bills are a sign that the legislature is thinking meaningfully about the needs of the court system after years of chaos within the judicial branch.
I was deeply saddened by the passing last month of Craig Shaffer, U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of Colorado. Judge Shaffer was a kind, brilliant, thoughtful, and highly respected judge. He authored a number of seminal decisions during his tenure on the federal bench, including an early, important opinion on the discovery of electronically stored information. He was also deeply committed to improving the justice system behind the scenes, as a member of the federal Advisory Committee on Civil Rules, a member of the Sedona Conference, and a frequent author on legal matters.
Judge Shaffer was also a lovely person, generous with his time and ideas. I consulted him from time to time about my own ideas on the discovery and rulemaking process, and he unfailingly offered observations that both clarified and magnified my original thoughts.
My sympathies to Judge Shaffer’s family and the entire legal community. He will be sorely missed.
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…
On Wednesday, the Rhode Island House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to create an unlimited number of new magistrate judges for its state court system. The bill was controversial, in that many of the state’s existing magistrates have been appointed outside of the prescribed process. State judges are supposed to be appointed through the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which provides opportunities for vetting and public input. Many magistrates, however, appear to have received their appointments as political favors.
As I noted previously, this is a tough spot for the Rhode Island court system. The additional magistrates will be welcomed to help with the courts’ work, but the court system as a whole could lose legitimacy if the public lacks confidence in the appointment process.
The Rhode Island court system recently received good news when the state’s House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would allow the Chief Judge of the District Court to appoint an unspecified number of new magistrates. Currently, the District Court is operating with only two magistrates.
But the bill’s advance remains controversial. Other judges in the state are vetted by a nominating commission before being appointed by the governor. And over the past 25 years, many of the magistrates who were appointed outside the political process have had political connections. (Indeed, many are former legislators.) Can Rhode Island balance the resource needs of its court system against political patronage concerns that could erode the courts’ legitimacy?
U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Goodwin, of the Western District of Oklahoma, has been deemed “unqualified” for the position of district judge by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. President Trump nominated Judge Goodwin to the district bench in July. The ABA gave no direct explanation for the “unqualified” designation.
Although the ABA’s evaluations of federal nominees date back to the Eisenhower Administration, recall that the Trump Administration has declined to share the names of its potential nominees with the ABA before nominations are announced. That approach (rare, but also used by George W. Bush) increases the likelihood that a nominee will be publicly identified as unqualified. (Potential nominees who receive a poor evaluation before an announcement is made can always be quietly dumped by the administration).
Judge Goodwin’s evaluation was not publicly released by the ABA; it was evidently leaked from a memorandum send to Senators Charles Grassley and Dianne Feinstein. And Oklahoma’s Senators are standing by the nominee. But now that the evaluation is out, it raises serious questions about the qualifications and temperament of a sitting federal magistrate judge. Although magistrate judges do not serve for life, they do serve eight-year renewable terms. Judge Goodwin assumed the bench in 2013, and would be in place until at least 2021. It might prove to be an uncomfortable four years, and a more uncomfortable reappointment process, if his district court nomination is unsuccessful