Much of the judicial selection process for local courts in the District of Columbia takes place behind closed doors. Last night, members of the commission who vet judicial applicants took part in a rare public forum on the process of applying to be a judge.
The seven-person District of Columbia Judicial Nomination Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor, D.C. Council, D.C. Bar, White House and chief judge of the city's federal court, considers applications to the local courts and recommends a short list to the White House for consideration. The president's nominee goes to the Senate for confirmation proceedings.
The commission releases the names of all applicants and the three lawyers it ultimately recommends to the White House for judgeships in the District of Columbia Superior Court and Court of Appeals. Otherwise, its proceedings are kept secret by law. Covington & Burling senior counsel Thomas Williamson Jr., who moderated last night's panel, said the event was part of a "deliberate effort to pull back the veil."
At least two dozen lawyers attended last night's panel, which was held at the D.C. Court of Appeals. In recent years, the commission has stepped up its public outreach, holding informational sessions about the application process and making more information available online.
Commission member Karl Racine, a partner at Venable, told the group of judicial hopefuls last night that successful applicants typically—but not always—have significant litigation experience. With the number of jury trials nationwide going down, though, he said he was also looking for a lawyer's administrative experience, given the responsibility judges bear in managing their dockets.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who chairs the nomination commission, said the statute allowed for a wide variety of lawyers to apply, including law school professors and government lawyers. Still, he said, "litigation means a lot."
When it came to reference letters, which are optional, Sullivan said he was especially interested in what an applicant’s opposing counsel had to say. A positive letter from a former opponent? "That says something about the character of the lawyer," Sullivan said. Commission member Grace Speights, managing partner of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius' Washington office, warned that the selection process is "not a popularity contest," and that the number of letters was not as important as their substance.
Sullivan said some issues—such as owed taxes, pending domestic disputes or unresolved bar complaints—could pose problems in the eyes of the commissioners, who were always thinking about how the White House would view applicants. Lawyers who solved those issues had come back and made it onto the bench later, he said, but he found it helpful to warn lawyers and encourage them to apply later so that those issues weren't part of the commission's official deliberations.
The Rev. Morris Shearin, one of two non-lawyers on the commission, said he valued lawyers' involvement in community service. Commission member Natalie Ludaway, a name partner of Leftwich & Ludaway, said she also was interested in whether an applicant volunteered, but was "not impressed" if it was obvious the lawyer had only recently gotten involved to pad an application. Speights added that she was interested in how applicants would stay involved in their community if they made it to the bench.
Speights said she believed she was the only commission member who would not meet one-on-one with applicants for Superior Court; the local statute creating the commission left it up to each member to decide whether they wanted to independently meet applicants. Speights said that because of her busy schedule, she didn't want to be in a position to only meet with some applicants. Since vacancies are less common on the appeals court, Speights said, she would agree to meet with applicants.
Ludaway said one-on-one meetings were useful to "get a little glimpse" into an applicant's character and learn more about information they included in their application, as well as answer questions about the nomination process. She warned, though, that applicants should be prepared to back up any statements they made-if they said they performed community service, for instance, Ludaway said they should be prepared to provide details.