Earlier this week, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. announced he was tapping U.S. District Judge John Bates to lead the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Bates is expected to continue serving as an active judge, but his appointment has created a new seat on Washington’s federal trial court for the White House to fill.
Under federal law, the president is required to nominate another judge to a court where an active, non-senior judge takes on a full-time federal judicial administration position—in this case, director of the administrative office. The administrative office posted the vacancy announcement shortly after Roberts announced he was picking Bates to lead the administrative office. Bates starts his new job July 1.
The appointment of an additional judge under these circumstances is a rare occurrence. The statute only applies to three possible positions: director of the administrative office, director of the Federal Judicial Center and counselor to the chief justice. The rule doesn't apply to senior judges, meaning President Barack Obama wasn't required to nominate another judge when Bates' immediate predecessor, Senior Judge Thomas Hogan Jr., also of the D.C. court, was named director in late 2011.
Under the statute, if Bates stepped down as director in the future and continued serving as a judge, the president wouldn't nominate another judge to fill the next vacancy that opened up in the court. The president’s pick for Bates’ replacement must still go through the U.S. Senate confirmation process.
There is currently one other open seat on the court for departing Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, who will take senior status next month.
U.S. senators typically recommend candidates to the White House for federal judgeships, but because the District of Columbia doesn't have a senator, Obama has extended a similar courtesy to U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Norton runs the Federal Law Enforcement Nominating Commission, a local group that vets applicants for the local federal courts, U.S. attorney, and other positions. Norton then makes a recommendation to the White House.