A few quick hits on President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court:
- Predictions are easy to make, and hard to make correctly. If I were better at this, I would have moved to Vegas already.
- Judge Kavanaugh will be subject to the same partisan rancor that has infected our federal judicial nomination process for nearly two decades. But he is surely qualified for the Supreme Court. His dozen years on the D.C. Circuit, as well as his educational and professional background, more than qualify him.
- That said, I firmly believe that the President would have been more politically expedient for the President to nominate Joan Larsen (or one of several other former state supreme court justices) for the seat. Judge Kavanaugh is a “safe” pick in part because he has the profile of a consummate Washington insider. Born and raised in Bethesda, his professional career has primarily been spent within the federal government, and he doesn’t appear to have spent much time at all outside the Beltway. (Yale and two clerkships seem to be the bulk of his non-D.C. experience). President Trump had a real opportunity to woo voters in Middle America with a non-East Coast pick, and there were several highly qualified nominees of that sort on his 25-person short list. It is disappointing that someone with greater familiarity with America beyond the Beltway wasn’t picked.
- In the same vein, and despite Judge Kavanaugh’s credentials, I am also disappointed that another D.C. Circuit judge will populate the Supreme Court. The Court already has three D.C. Circuit alums (Roberts, Thomas, and Ginsburg). The D.C. Circuit is an important court, to be sure, but it hardly needs four justices out of nine with that limited perspective.
- I thought Trump would nominate a woman, if only to create a political advantage over the identity politics-obsessed Democrats in the Senate. The Kavanaugh nomination indicates that Trump was not interested in engaging that dynamic this time around. But it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t revisit it soon. Perhaps he is counting on another vacancy opening in the next two years; if Justice Ginsburg retires, he could nominate a woman (perhaps an even more seasoned Joan Larsen) and really watch the fur fly.
- From the perspective of the courts themselves (and, after all, that’s what this blog is about), the Kavanaugh nomination means more judicial cascades to come. Assuming the nomination is successful, Trump will now have the opportunity to fill Judge Kavanaugh’s D.C. Circuit seat with a (presumably) younger judge of the same qualifications and ideological bent. If he pulls such a judge from the district court ranks, he will have another vacancy for the trial courts as well. Given the record pace with which he is nominating (and the Senate is confirming) federal judges, the courts will have a continued infusion of relatively young (Gen X) judges at all levels.
The West Virginia House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill that would allow the House Committee on the Judiciary to investigate allegations of malpractice and criminal activity by members of the state Supreme Court of Appeals. The investigation could lead to the impeachment of one or more of the Supreme Court justices.
More on the allegations against the Justices, and especially former Chief Justice Allen Loughry (who was recently indicted by a federal grand jury on 22 counts of fraud and other malfeasance) here and here.
Last week I noted the lawsuit filed against Florida Governor Rick Scott by Jacksonville attorney David Trotti. Scott has moved to fill several seats on the state bench, which opened due to curiously timed judicial retirements. Trotti alleges that the retirements create a vacancy for such a short period that the seats should be filled by popular election.
The trial court ruled in favor of Trotti, which would have prevented the Governor from filling the seat. But the Scott Administration appealed, which automatically stayed the decision and once again enabled the Governor to appoint a new judge. Trotti convinced the trial court to vacate the stay, but Scott then convinced the appellate court to reinstate the stay.
Trotti has now appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the stay (and a Scott appointment) will eliminate the rights of citizens to vote for the judicial candidate of their choice. In his petition, he noted that several judges have times their retirements to create just enough of vacancy to permit the Governor to claim the right to fill the seat through appointment. As I noted in my earlier post, I am no fan of judicial elections, but this certainly smells like people are gaming the system.
The European Union is entering uncharted waters as it deals with a threat to the judiciary coming from one of its own:
The executive European Commission has triggered a punitive procedure against Poland for weakening the rule of law, the first time it has used the provision. Tuesday’s meeting will see European affairs and foreign ministers from the other 27 EU states quiz their Polish counterpart.
“The Polish government has the right to reform the judiciary as long as this does not go at the expense of the independence of the judiciary,” said the Commission’s deputy head, Frans Timmermans, who is leading the case against Warsaw.
This will not be resolved quickly or quietly.
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the most prominent Republican critics of President Trump, has stated that he “and a few other senators” plan not to vote on any more federal judicial nominations until Congress acts on other issues:
“I do think that unless we can actually do something other than just approving the president’s executive calendar, his nominees, judges, that we have no reason to be there,” Flake said. “So, I think myself and a number of senators, at least a few of us will stand up and say let’s not move any more judges until we get a vote for example on tariffs.”
“The Senate ought to bring legislation to the floor that says hey, we’re going to push back here,” Flake said. “The European Union exporting cars to the U.S. does not represent a national security threat.”
Senator Flake is right about the need for Congress to step up and do its job in a rigorous and thoughtful manner. But it’s a damning indictment of that body that it cannot simultaneously govern the country and approve judicial nominees. Meanwhile, the federal court system continues to operate with many fewer judges than it believes necessary to do its work properly.
This depressing story relates the brutal public invective that some family court judges in Connecticut have recently experienced–including a slew of anti-semitic, racist, and homophobic slurs. And it’s not just on social media. Opponents of the judges have erected vicious billboards on interstate highways, and have shown up to public hearings provocatively dressed to draw attention to their hatred of the judge.
The problem is compounded, first, by the nature of family court cases, which are often highly emotional and difficult. The well-accepted standard of doing what is in the “best interests of the child” is easy to state, but not to easy to apply. A second aggravating factor is the ongoing political fight between Connecticut’s legislators and Governor Dannel Malloy over judicial appointments and reappointments. And, of course, delays and court costs only add to the stress of the litigant experience.
So there is much room for improvement. But obviously no judge (indeed, no person) deserves to be attacked based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and the like.
A curiously timed judicial retirement in Florida has spurred a lawsuit and a debate over whether the vacancy should be filled by the governor or the voters.
Robert Foster, a trial judge on the state’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, was expected to retire on January 7, 2019–the last day of his term. (Foster will have reached the state’s mandatory retirement age.) In April, however, Foster informed Governor Rick Scott that he will take retirement one week earlier, on December 31.
That one week makes a big difference. Normally when a Florida judge leaves on the final day of the term, his seat is filled by popular election. But the governor interpreted the December 31 retirement to be an “early” retirement, which would allow him to fill the seat by gubernatorial appointment. In early May, the Fourth Judicial Circuit’s Judicial Nominating Commission announced the vacancy and invited applications.
Continue reading “Florida’s fight over filling a judicial vacancy”