A report released today by the Council for Court Excellence shows that the bulk of judges confirmed to the District of Columbia Superior Court come from government service, and also that the nominating process can be "unpredictable" once lawyers are recommended to the White House.
The council, a nonprofit that studies administration of justice in local Washington courts, published its last report on D.C. judges in 2005. The new study (PDF) broke down the professional histories of judges nominated and appointed to Superior Court between 1994 and 2011, as well as the duration of the nominating process. On average, the report found, it took 13.5 months to get a judge on the bench.
Of the 45 judges who took the bench during that time, 36 judges, or 80 percent, had "primary experience" working in the public sector, either for the District or the federal government. The council defined “primary” as wherever the judge had worked the longest, or the longest most recently, if he or she had a diverse professional history.
Additionally, 36 judges had primary experience in criminal law, followed by 10 judges whose primary background was in civil law and 9 judges with a primary background in family law. When each judge’s professional history is taken as a whole, 43 of the 45 judges had spent some time working for the government; 40 had experience in criminal law; while 33 had some experience with civil law.
On average, a judicial appointment to Superior Court took 13.5 months, from when the vacancy was announced to investiture. When that timeline was broken down, the council found that the District of Columbia Judicial Nomination Commission took 1.6 months on average to recommend names of attorneys to the White House.
The council found that after the commission sent its recommendations to the White House, the rest of the process took anywhere from four months to three years. After the White House nominates an attorney for a local Washington court, that nominee goes before the U.S. Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs for confirmation proceedings.
Noting that keeping the bench full and knowing how long a vacancy will be unfilled are important for “the smooth operation of a court,” the council found that “both are beyond the control of the Superior Court or the Judicial Nomination Commission.” As a result, the council noted, the bench is rarely at full capacity.
The council shied away from making any policy recommendations, said Executive Director June Kress. “Our mission is to describe a process and to take a look at aggregate data and not make recommendations,” she said.
Kress did say that the unpredictability of the process has proved problematic for some applicants, especially attorneys in private practice who have to manage clients. “It’s very unique that a local trial court system selects its judges by submitting names to the White House and then the Senate,” she said. “It’s fraught with challenges because there’s a perception that you must have White House connections to be selected, which isn’t necessarily true.”