Learned Hand on the Politics of Judicial Appointments

In debates over potential reforms to the judicial appointments process, there seems to be a pervasive sense that the problem of politicization is a relatively new one. In terms of the frequency with which the Senate rejects even highly qualified nominees and the extent to which overt partisanship has crept into the evaluation of candidates for lower courts, that sense seems pretty accurate. More than either of his two most recent predecessors, President Obama has had a difficult time securing Senate approval of his picks for the judiciary, as I previously discussed here.

I think it’s helpful to appreciate, however, that the basic problem of partisanship trumping merit as a determinant of judicial appointments is anything but new. Recently, I was reading Gerald Gunther’s biography of Learned Hand and came across a reminder of how the appointments process has long been an overwhelmingly political affair, even for lower-court judgeships. Gunther explains that when Jerome Frank’s death in the late 1950s left vacant a seat on the Second Circuit, advocates from opposing political orientations lobbied heavily for their favored candidates to receive the next appointment. Many Republicans pushed for the selection of Leonard Moore, the U.S. Attorney for E.D.N.Y., while Democrats favored Irving Kaufman, the federal judge who had presided over the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Moreover, many on both sides appear to have viewed the choice between Moore and Kaufman as essentially political rather than merit-based. One of the significant arguments made in favor of Kaufman, for example, was that elevating him to the Second Circuit could function as a way for the President and Senate to signal their approval of his handling of the Rosenberg trial, of which leftist organizations had been fiercely critical.

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No Harm, No Foul — But How Do You Know If There Was Harm?

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that gives the Court an opportunity to clarify a longstanding ambiguity in harmless error law.  Even if a defendant’s procedural rights have been violated at trial, a conviction will not be reversed on appeal if the error was harmless.  However, the Court has at different times articulated the harmless error standard in two different ways, without ever clearly indicating whether the two formulations are substantively different and, if so, which one is preferred.

In the new case, Vasquez v. United States (No. 11-199), the defendant’s cert. petition focused squarely on this ambiguity, arguing that the majority opinion below (635 F.3d 889 (7th Cir. 2011)) rested on one formulation, while the dissenting opinion rested on the other.  In Vasquez’s view, the choice of harmless error standard is more-or-less dispositive in his case, thus making the case an appropriate platform for deciding which standard is the right one.  In its response, however, the government disputes that there is any substantive difference between the standards.

Here are the (allegedly) competing standards.

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A.B.A. Rejections of Obama Judicial Nominees

Speaking through its judicial vetting committee, the A.B.A. has rejected fourteen of President Obama’s potential nominees for the federal bench. The overall rejection rate was 7.5 percent, a rate three and a half times that for the eight-year administrations of both President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.

Why has the A.B.A. been less enthusiastic about the Obama judicial nominees? One simple theory is that the organization is more conservative than many think. It used to be assumed the A.B.A. had a liberal bias, but the rejected nominees are Obama-style liberals.

Another theory involves the experiences and career paths of the nominees. Most were government lawyers and academics, but the A.B.A. apparently wants significant trial experience. The A.B.A., like the general public, may think that “true” lawyers are litigators.

The most troubling theory for the high rejection rate is that the A.B.A. continues to imagine a white, male federal judiciary. Eight of the fourteen rejections are African American or Hispanic, and nine are women.

President Obama could still seek Senate confirmation for his nominees, but regardless of what he decides on that score, the rejections provide new perspectives on the A.B.A. The emerging image is hardly attractive.


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