Justice Clarence Thomas recently spoke at a Supreme Court Fellows program at the Library of Congress. According to reports, he addressed a wide range of court-related issues, ranging from the federal confirmation process to his own tenure on the court.
But this is the passage that really struck me:
“There’s a real decided difference between what is said about what goes on and judging and the court and what actually happens,” Thomas said. “There’s the real world and there’s the myth of that world.”
Thomas specifically cited accusations that judges “just want to execute people.”
“I haven’t met a judge who wants to execute anybody,” he said. “I haven’t met that judge yet. In fact, every judge I have met, going through these cases — look at what it does to your hair. You start out, your hair is black. You have lots of it. Then all of a sudden, you’re follically impaired. Your hair, what’s left, it turns gray, and you say, ‘Oh my God, another execution.’ Every one of us is like, ‘Did I get it right? Did I make a mistake?’”
In our tantrum-induced political environment, it’s easy to ascribe the worst motivations to anyone with whom we disagree, and even easier to caricature them as monsters. Judges struggle with the difficult issues more than most of us — and unlike legislators, have little or no opportunity to respond to brazen personal attacks.
I am quoted toward the end of this NOLA.com story on the nomination of Wendy Vitter to be a federal district judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana. As I pointed out in the story, the EDLA is down two full-time district judges and desperately needs people to step in and roll up their sleeves: the district has the second-highest number of pending cases in the country, and the sixth-worst number of trials completed during the last fiscal year.
The story emphasizes that many observers are happy with Vitter’s nomination — she has more than 100 criminal trials under her belt as a state prosecutor, and generally seems to be well-respected within the New Orleans legal community. Still, detractors raise three objections to her nomination: her lack of federal litigation experience, her marriage to a former U.S. Senator, and her Catholic faith. None of these should derail her nomination.
Continue reading “Some thoughts on the Wendy Vitter nomination”
The Dallas Morning News has a good story about the impact of longstanding federal judicial vacancies in Texas. For all the attention that President Trump has received regarding his judicial nominees, relatively few have been confirmed at the district court level. The article gives us a good look into districts where judicial emergencies stemming from longstanding vacancies are, unfortunately, a way of life.
In July, the White House nominated Thomas Farr for a vacant judgeship in the Eastern District of North Carolina. But this was not just any vacant judgeship — the position has sat empty for twelve years as a result of extreme partisan gamesmanship in the Senate. Farr was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in October, but the full Senate never voted on his nomination. Because no action was taken by year-end, the nomination was returned to the White House.
The President can renominate Farr after the first of the year, and probably will despite Democratic concerns about Farr’s alleged role on voter suppression tactics in the 1990s. If renominated, Farr would face a slightly different Judiciary Committee for a second hearing, with Al Franken gone and replaced, perhaps, by Cory Booker or Kamala Harris.
Whatever transpires with Farr’s nomination, both the Senate and the White House owe it to the people of North Carolina to finally fill this seat. The dozen-year vacancy is both embarrassing and detrimental to the work of the courts.
Federal district court nominee Matthew Spencer Petersen’s embarrassing unfamiliarity with basic trial court and litigation concepts recently led me to observe that concrete trial and pretrial experience should be a baseline requirement for all federal trial court nominees. Not everyone sees it that way. At the National Review, Carrie Severino downplays Peterson’s lack of trial experience, noting that his work at the Federal Election Commission over the past decade “gave him significant exposure to the sort of regulatory cases that the [U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the court to which Peterson has been nominated] regularly decides.” And at Prawfsblawg, Howard Wasserman similarly suggested that “[t]here is a benefit to having judges of various backgrounds” on the district court, and that a nominee’s failure to have tried a case should not be disqualifying. Other commentators have made comparable observations.
I respectfully disagree. Trial judges simply must have real trial experience, for the sake of the judicial institution and its users.
Continue reading “Why trial experience matters for new district judges”
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from five more federal district court nominees. Unlike those nominated for the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal, district court nominees often undergo little serious questioning. Their resumes speak to their qualifications, and the political stakes are lower than with appellate judges.
But basic qualifications are a serious problem for too many Trump nominees. When questioned by Senator John Kennedy, D.C. District nominee Matthew Petersen was unable to identify the most basic legal concepts that a federal judge must contend with on a daily basis. He admitted to being unfamiliar with the Daubert standard for evidence, Younger and Pullman abstention, and even the current Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This is not particularly surprising, since he has never tried a case, or even argued a motion, at any level of state or federal court.
Here is the jaw-dropping video, courtesy of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s Twitter feed. Mr. Peterson, a member of the Federal Election Commission since 2008 (and twice its chairman) has since withdrawn his nomination.
Mr. President, how about populating the trial courts with, you know, people who have actually done some trials?
UPDATE/CORRECTION: Peterson’s nomination is still pending as of Friday evening. But it’s hard to imagine it won’t be withdrawn soon.
Two of President Trump’s nominees for federal district judgeships have been withdrawn. Brett Talley, a nominee for the bench in Alabama, and Jeff Mateer, nominated for the bench in Texas, will not advance.
Talley drew particular criticism over the last several months for his personal conflicts and clear lack of qualifications. The 36-year-old Justice Department attorney has only practiced law for three years and has never tried a case — a monumental shortcoming for a trial court nominee. Talley also failed to disclose that he was married to a White House lawyer, or that he had previously made controversial statements about death row inmates. (Of less direct importance, but no less head-scratching, was the additional revelation that Talley is a “ghost hunter.”) The ABA rated him “unqualified.”
Separately, Mateer came under fire for his statements on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgender children.
The withdrawals come on the heels of Senator Chuck Grassley’s recommendation that the White House “reconsider” both nominations.