The Third Circuit has 3 open seats. Who should fill them? [updated]

With Justice Neil Gorsuch confirmed, attention now turns to filling vacancies on the lower federal courts, including the Third Circuit. David Lat posted on the topic on Above the Law on Friday, and his post contained at least two points of particular interest to Third Circuiters:

  • “[T]he nominees are very young — some names I’ve heard mentioned are still in their 30s,” and
  • “I’ve heard through the grapevine that interviews for some (but not all) spots on the Third, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits … are underway.”

The Third Circuit urgently needs judges. Of the 14 seats on the court, three are open:

  • Judge Rendell’s seat (Pennsylvania), open since July 2015. President Obama nominated Rebecca Ross Haywood for this seat but Senator Pat Toomey blocked her.
  • Judge Fuentes’s seat (New Jersey), open since July 2016.
  • Judge Fisher’s seat (Pennsylvania), open since February 2017.

The $64,000 question: Who should fill these three seats?

Home-state senators have the power to block judicial nominations by withholding their blue slips. That means Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senator Robert Casey can block two of the seats, and either of New Jersey’s Democratic Senators (Cory Booker and Bob Menendez) can block the third.

Casey and Menendez are both up for re-election in 2018. Menendez is under indictment for federal corruption charges. Booker has been mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate. So all three likely will be under the microscope.

What will Trump do? What will Casey, Booker, and Menendez do? What should they do?

I’ve given this a lot of thought since my last posts about it (here and here) last November, and I believe the solution is straightforward.

First, all three seats need to be filled. ‘They blocked us before so we’ll block them now’ is the wrong answer.

Second, at least two of the three seats should be filled by women. The Third Circuit has only two active judges who are women, the worst gender imbalance [until recently, see below] of any circuit in the country. Perpetuating that imbalance is unthinkable.

Third, both the Rendell seat and the Fuentes seat should be filled by consensus picks. The precedents here are Judges Greenaway and Vanaskie, both nominated by President Obama with a Democratic-controlled Senate to fill seats that opened during President Bush’s presidency.  Both were moderate centrists — Greenaway was a federal criminal prosecutor and corporate counsel who clerked for a Republican-nominated judge, Vanaskie was MDPA chief judge with a decade and a half on the federal bench and was a Scranton commercial litigator before that.  And both were over 50 when commissioned — Greenaway 52, Vanaskie 56.

Yes, Republicans may have stolen the Rendell and Fuentes seats from Democrats by obstruction, but the way forward for Democrats now is compromise, not more obstruction. So, agree on two well-qualified moderate Republicans in their 50’s, one from PA and one from NJ, and confirm them.

Democrats may fight to fill the Rendell seat with a moderate Democrat, arguing that Republicans stole the seat by Toomey’s indefensible obstruction of Haywood and citing President Clinton’s compromise nomination of Republican Judge Barry as a precedent. That was my view before, and it may still help as a bargaining position, but the fact is those sorts of arguments didn’t get Republicans in the seats filled by Greenaway and Vanaskie, so I don’t expect them to get a Democrat in Rendell’s seat, either.

Fourth and finally, the Fisher seat should be Trump’s to fill with the qualified nominee of his choosing. Judge Fisher waited to go senior until Trump took office, so it’s a Republican seat, fair and square.  If the administration wants a 38 year-old Federalist Society stalwart here, it should be able to. But I expect Casey to insist that this nomination be paired with the Rendell-seat nomination to protect his leverage.

This isn’t rocket science. The right answer is clear enough. The administration and the home-state Democratic senators ought to be able to work together amicably and expeditiously to fill these seats and get the Third Circuit finally back to full strength.

But if Trump tries to fill all three seats with young conservative partisans? Expect a war.

 

UPDATE: Professor Jonathan Adler has helpfully pointed out to me that the Eighth Circuit is now down to one woman active judge (Judge Diane Murphy took senior status in November), so the Third Circuit no longer has the worst gender imbalance of the circuits. Still.

Also, as Howard Bashman‘s How Appealing noted, Professor Orin Kerr responded to this post on Twitter here and here proposing Lee DeJulius, Stephanos Bibas, and Chris Paoelella (“assuming he’s Jersey enough”) for the three seats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.