SEATTLE – U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are considering who might serve as new judges on the badly understaffed federal bench in the Western District of Washington state, after receiving recommendations from a selection panel charged with finding professionally and ethnically diverse candidates.
The Democrats are expected to forward names to President Joe Biden, who will nominate judges who must be confirmed by the Senate. Five of the seven full-time, active district judge positions at the federal courthouses in Seattle and Tacoma are vacant – the highest ratio in the country – and the district’s semi-retired senior judges have been picking up much of the slack.
“I can’t wait for reinforcements,” Chief Judge Ricardo S. Martinez said Monday. “The average age of a judge trying cases in the Western District right now is 77.”
The White House asked the senators to focus on diversity in addition to legal expertise in suggesting potential nominees for the lifetime appointments. The recommendations from the nonpartisan judicial selection panel for the Western District have not been made public, but the make-up of the panel itself is among the most diverse of those assembled to recommend federal judges anywhere in the country, Murray’s office said.
The 10 members include Michele Storms, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington; Mika Kurose Rothman, a civil rights attorney and granddaughter of Japanese-American social justice advocate Aki Kurose; and Chach Duarte White, past president of the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington, who works with homeless and immigrant youth and foster children.
Also included was Rion Ramirez, an attorney who heads the economic development arm of the Suquamish Tribe, and who is the first Native American to serve on a judicial selection panel in the state.
“I’m committed to nominating highly qualified individuals whose wide-ranging legal experiences and diverse backgrounds will help ensure our judicial branch better reflects our country, and who are committed to justice for all Americans,” Murray said in an emailed statement Monday.
Some of the judicial vacancies at the Seattle and Tacoma courthouses date back more than five years, resulting in delays for many cases even before the pandemic struck. Seattle U.S. District Judges Robert Lasnik, Marsha Pechman and James Robart took semi-retired senior status in 2016, followed by Judges Ronald Leighton and Benjamin Settle in Tacoma in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The senior judges have kept heavier-than-normal caseloads because there’s no one else to do the work.
The two active judges – Martinez and Richard Jones – are both eligible for senior status, raising the prospect that Biden could name all seven active judges in western Washington before his first term is up.
Having five of the Western District’s seven active judgeships vacant “is incredible,” said University of Richmond Law School Professor Carl Tobias.
“The only thing that keeps the court afloat is the senior judges, but they must be getting tired of it,” Tobias said.
Former President Barack Obama made three nominations for the Seattle vacancies in 2016 – King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus; J. Michael Diaz, a former federal civil rights attorney who has since been elected a King County Superior Court judge; and Kathleen O’Sullivan, a partner at the Seattle law firm of Perkins Coie. The Senate failed to act on the nominations as Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, then the majority leader, refused to confirm many of Obama’s nominees.
Former President Donald Trump agreed to make two nominations for the Seattle courthouse: O’Sullivan and Tessa Gorman, a longtime federal prosecutor who is currently serving as acting U.S. attorney for the Western District. But Trump never actually forwarded those nominations to the Senate amid a dispute with Cantwell and Murray, who opposed Trump’s pick for a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacancy.
The other members of the Western District’s judicial selection panel were Tom Hillier, who headed the Federal Public Defender’s Office in western Washington for 32 years; Sarah Jael Dion, who serves on the Board of QLaw, the LGBTQ Bar Association of Washington; former Seattle U.S. Attorney Brian Moran; Ian Warner, who served as a member of the monitoring team overseeing reforms at the Seattle Police Department before becoming senior director of public policy at Zillow; former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna; and longtime Seattle defense attorney John Wolfe.
Wolfe, McKenna, Warner and Duarte White have previously served on judicial selection committees for the Western District.
The membership of the panel working to recommend a candidate for the Eastern District’s vacancy has not been made public.