Even if you are in mourning about the results of the presidential election, and I am not, you will agree that there is one occasion for rejoicing: With the elections safely behind us, both President Obama and the Senate can now turn their attention to fully staffing the federal judiciary. The judiciary was all but the forgotten branch in the run up to the general election, an odd occurrence, given its importance in our lives.
Nationwide, there 82 vacancies on the federal bench, according to Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts website. Only 34 candidates have been nominated to fill these positions. Some nominees, such as Michael Shea in Connecticut, were nominated early in 2012, only to be ignored. (Shea was nominated by the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 2, 2012.) Why Shea, the most vanilla of nominees, has been ignored speaks poorly of the Senate as an institution.
Connecticut has two vacancies on the District Court. Shea was nominated to fill the position vacated by Christopher Droney, who was kicked upstairs to the United States Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit almost one year ago. The death of Mark Kravitz last month creates a second vacancy. How long will the president and Senate dither in filling these seats?
One reason for the seeming gridlock is that Connecticut’s Senators have made a mess of the nomination process. Now-departing Senator Joseph Lieberman and Senator Richard Blumenthal have a blue-ribbon committee evaluating potential nominees. Candidates must sign a pledges of secrecy before being screened by the committee for a job as judge. This is utter foolishness. What secret handshakes, what unseemly genuflecting, takes place in these interviews that we cannot know? I don’t want my judges selected by a committee that operates like Skull and Bones.
So let me take a risk here and indulge the hope that the departure of Senator Lieberman, a man for all parties, an Independent without portfolio, a politico with a Red heart in Blue state, will change things. I’m looking to Senator-elect Chris Murphy to breathe some life into this now secret process. Murphy may be a junior Senator – he looks all of about nine-years-old – but he should still insist that the business of selecting nominees be open to public view.
I am hoping that a trial lawyer, preferably a criminal defense lawyer, is nominated. The federal bench, especially at the appellate court and Supreme Court level, is populated by largely by brilliant theoreticians who never tried a case. I wouldn’t send a friend to a surgeon who’d only read about the operating room. I want judges who know what it’s like to stand in the well of a court armed only with contested evidence and legal doctrine. I once heard a law professor dismiss a question claiming the issue presented "a mere matter of proof." We don’t need professors on the bench.
Hope Seeley of Hartford is my top choice. She is smart, honest, and works as hard as any lawyer I know. Despite her talents, she is also modest. There’s no danger she’d fall in love with the robe. Dangle a robe in front of her eyes.
Another favorite is John Walkley of Trumbull. John is rumored to be on the short list for appointment to the state bench. He’ll be a fine jurist at either the state or federal level. He has loads of experience with complex and high-stakes cases. He is an understated workhorse of enormous goodwill.
I’ve attempted to throw Superior Court Judge Dawne Westbrook’s name into the federal hopper before. I do so again. I’ve know her forever. She is smart, capable and good humored. (Yes, I represent her husband, Dr. Tory Westbrook, who is facing criminal charges; I nominated her for a federal judgeship long before her husband needed me.)
And then there is a perennial favorite, Bill Bloss, now practicing in Bridgeport with Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder. Bloss is preternaturally smart, with a savant's quirky humor. Despite his brilliance, he tolerates we lesser mortals, and is always gracious with his time and talents. I've supported him in the past, and do so now without reservation.
Not one of these candidates knows I am nominating them. All are experienced representing ordinary people in both the state and federal courts. All have the respect of the bar. All are would obtain high marks on any review of ability.
So, Senators Murphy and Blumenthal, nominate or get off the pot. And then press your colleagues to actually vote on the nominations. There’s plenty of work to do in the courts. We need you to do your part with dispatch.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.