Twelve-year old federal court vacancy in North Carolina one small step closer to being filled

Since 2005, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina has had an open seat, the product of partisan bickering in the Senate. George W. Bush nominated attorney Thomas Farr for the seat in 2006, but Senate Democrats failed to process the nomination.  Barack Obama subsequently nominated two different women to the seat during his presidency, but both nominations were blocked by Senate Republicans.  Now Donald Trump has come full circle, re-nominating Farr for the same seat.  And despite deep opposition by Democrats, Farr’s nomination advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday on a straight party-line vote.

It’s unclear who benefits from this partisan rancor, but it is very clear who loses: the courts and the public. For a dozen years since Judge John Malcolm took senior status, the Eastern District has been down an active district judge. Given that the district is only authorized to have four active judges, the court has been operating at only three-quarters capacity for more than a decade — and through no fault of its own.

I have no opinion on whether Mr. Farr is the right man for the job. But the public should reject as outlandish that the seat was not filled by someone long ago.

 

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California makes its judicial elections marginally less awful

Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill requiring judicial candidates in California to appear on the ballot with “actual government job titles” rather than fanciful designations designed to elicit emotional voter reaction.  In recent elections, candidates have sought and received ballot designations like “Child Molestation Prosecutor” and “Gang Murder Prosecutor.” Under the new law, candidates will have to list either their formal job titles (e.g., “City of Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney”) or provide a short, neutral description of their work (e.g., “Attorney at Law”).

The bill had broad bipartisan support, and it is not hard to see why. Allowing candidates to select their own designations may spur the voter reaction needed to win (who doesn’t love a “Gang Murder Prosecutor”?), but badly poisoned the impartiality and legitimacy of California’s elected judiciary. How could any criminal defendant hope for a fair trial before a judge who owed his election to that prosecutorial slogan? Even if the judge was able to transition to a mode of impartial decisionmaker — which many prosecutors have done with great success — who would believe it?

This was, then, an eminently sensible move. But Californians should hardly be complacent. The state’s more than 1500 trial judges are still chosen by popular election, and there is little reason to be confident that merely removing the most egregious designations from the ballot will improve matters much. Over the years, the state’s judicial elections have been poisoned by ethical lapses, the flow of money into campaign coffers, and political dog-whistling.  And there is an alternative: the state uses gubernatorial appointment to fill unexpected vacancies on the trial court (due, for example,  to death, retirement, or promotion), and that process that could be extended to all trial court selection. True, it would take a constitutional amendment, but many states have done just that over the past 70 years.

I am not holding my breath just yet. But until serious judicial election reform comes to the Golden State, Californians are merely editing out the worst excesses of a lousy system.

Federal district court nominee deemed “unqualified” by ABA

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

 

More fallout from a heated Florida judicial election

In March, I flagged a story about Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino, who was elected last November after running a particularly ugly campaign against his opponent, Gregg Lerman.  udge Santino ran ads suggesting that Lerman, a defense attorney, represents “murders, rapists, child molesters, and other criminals.” She was subsequently investigated by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, and admitted to violating two canons of judicial ethics. The Commission has yet to issue a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court about Judge Santino’s punishment, if any.

In the meantime, there has been an interesting ripple effect. It turns out that before her own election, Judge Santino briefly served as a campaign manager to another Palm Beach County judge, Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo. In light of this fact, Gregg Lerman (Santino’s former opponent) asked Judge Caracuzzo to recuse herself from all cases in which he was representing a party. Judge Caracuzzo agreed.

Although requested by Lerman, the recusal now makes things more complicated for his practice. There are fewer judges available to his clients, which may lead to more delays in the administration of justice.

All involved insist that there are no hard feelings about the earlier campaign. But judicial elections have these sort of ancillary (and ultimately predictable) effects. At minimum, a lawyer in Mr. Lerman’s shoes might think twice before seeking a judicial position in the future.

 

New wave of federal judicial nominees announced

President Trump has announced a new wave of federal judicial nominees, mostly to vacant positions on the Circuit Courts of Appeal.  Notably, they include Gregory Katsas, the current deputy White House Counsel, who was nominated for a seat on the D.C. Circuit.

 

Israeli Supreme Court gets new president

Justice Esther Hayut was unanimously elected to the position by the country’s Judicial Appointments Committee.  The vote appears to have been pretty pro forma, in that the position traditionally goes to the longest serving justice.  But the unanimity of voting members also masks some tension between Israel’s right-leaning and centrist parties over the composition of the Supreme Court.  The Times of Israel has a fuller explanation.

Brooklyn judicial candidates accuse local party chief of holding illegal fundraiser for their opponents

I have previously discussed the candidacies of five Brooklyn residents who are running for judge, but refuse to go through the selection system dominated by Democratic Party bosses. In the latest twist in the story, a spokesman for the five candidates has accused local party boss Frank Seddio of hosting a “illegal” fundraiser for the party’s preferred candidates on August 23.

Surely some of this is an effort to stay in the news cycle, but the accusations of spokesman Gary Tilzer are still damning:

Seddio, an attorney, sent the red, white and blue invite to more than 185 people — including sitting judges, judicial candidates, attorneys, developers, politicians, lobbyists and members of the Judicial Screening Committee. The invite vaguely touts fund-raising “to support our contested countywide candidates.”

It doesn’t specify the candidates who will benefit or the election that’s involved.

***

Guests were instructed to write their $500 to $5,000 checks out to the Kings County Democratic County Committee, an account that’s controlled by the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and mail them to Seddio’s home address, according to the letter.

Tilzer’s three-page letter to the committees said Seddio’s fund-raising efforts violate the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct and are unethical on seven points, including not disclosing who the event benefits, inviting sitting judges to contribute and, since the beneficiaries aren’t named, having judicial candidates raising money with potential nonjudicial candidates.

As I have noted before, those who are truly concerned about the influence of money in politics might want to start by shining a light on local hornet’s nests like these.