In a rare move, President Barack Obama announced yesterday afternoon that he had nominated a solo practitioner to serve on the District of Columbia Superior Court. Michael O'Keefe, a member of the D.C. Bar since 1994 and longtime solo attorney, would be among only a handful of D.C. judges with similar experience if confirmed.
Obama also nominated Robert Okun, chief of the special proceedings division in the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia, to a seat on Superior Court. Okun was nominated to the court last year but the U.S. Senate returned his nomination to the White House at the end of the term.
There are three open seats on the court. Obama nominated Okun and two other candidates to fill those positions, but the Senate failed to act on them before the end of the year. The other two nominees – Superior Court Magistrate Judge Rainey Brandt and U.S. Department of Justice attorney Donna Murphy – have not been renominated to date.
O'Keefe and Okun were not immediately available for comment.
Historically, solo practitioners are a less common pick for judgeships. Unlike government lawyers or attorneys at large law firms, for instance, lawyers who run their own practice traditionally have less institutional support going through the nomination process and don't have as established a pipeline to the bench.
Although several current judges worked at one time as solo practitioners, a previous survey of judicial backgrounds by Legal Times showed that O'Keefe would be very rare in coming directly from solo practice to the court, if confirmed; Judge Ronna Lee Beck was also a solo practitioner at the time she was nominated.
According to the White House announcement yesterday, O'Keefe's practice focuses mostly on criminal defense and family law. He's handled more than 2,000 cases in Superior Court and serves on the panel of Criminal Justice Act lawyers who are appointed by the court to take cases for indigent defendants.
Okun has spent the bulk of his career with the federal government. In his current position, he oversees the handling of all post-conviction motions in Superior Court and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He also served as executive assistant U.S. attorney for operations and special counsel to the U.S. attorney for professional development and legal policy. Before joining the U.S. attorney's office, he was a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Consumer Litigation and in the civil division's fraud section, as well as the Office of Policy and Evaluation at the Federal Trade Commission.
Okun appeared before the Senate subcommittee that handles judicial nominees for the District's local courts in November, but no action was taken on his nomination before the end of the year.
A White House spokesman couldn't immediately be reached this morning to comment on the status of the third open seat in Superior Court.