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.
Regular readers of this blog know that I believe Judge Joan Larsen, of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, to be a prime candidate to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy should another seat open up during the Trump Administration. Late last year, Judge Larsen delivered the Sumner Canary Memorial Lecture at Case Western Reserve Law School in Ohio, and that school’s law review has just published her remarks.
The lecture is a short and valuable exposition on the often nuanced relationship between state and federal courts–something Judge Larsen knows well. I highly recommend the entire piece to the reader. But a couple of points she made struck me as particularly interesting from an organizational perspective.
Continue reading “Judge Larsen on State Courts in a Federal System”
The Michigan courts recently announced two initiatives designed to improve the experience of being in court for their users. The Third Circuit Court in Detroit opened new lactation rooms in four different buildings to improve access for nursing mothers. And in Dearborn, a local judge has opened a veterans court to provide help to veterans with mental health or substance abuse problems who would otherwise face jail time.
The Chief Justices of six states — Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee — recently signed a charter to support a Regional Opioid Initiative already in place in those states. The courts’ commitment to the initiative recognizes that the epidemic crosses state borders and is most usefully addressed with a high level of cross-state cooperation. It also recognizes the key role of state judiciaries in combatting the epidemic.
On Monday, the President nominated ten individuals for federal judgeships — five on the circuit courts of appeal, four on the district courts, and one on the U.S. Court of Claims. Three of the ten (Joan Larsen of Michigan, David Stras of Minnesota, and David Nye of Idaho) currently sit on state courts — Larsen and Stras on their state supreme courts, and Nye on his state’s trial bench.
The value of state court experience for federal judges has not been discussed much, but it should be. An intimate knowledge of state law and state court operations is surprisingly useful for the federal bench. And appointing federal judges from the state courts has valuable ripple effects for the states as well. More after the jump.
Continue reading “Several new federal judicial nominees have state court experience, and that’s great news”
Last summer, Minnesota District Judge Galen Vaa filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that its mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 was unconstitutional. (Vaa is currently 69 and wants to keep working past next year.) This week, another district judge in the state ruled against his claim, concluding that the state constitution authorized the legislature to set a mandatory retirement age.
Most states impose mandatory retirement ages between 70 and 75. Judge Vaa plans to appeal the ruling.
UPDATE: Michigan lawmakers are considering eliminating that state’s mandatory retirement age for judges. We’ll follow this development as well.