Thomas Vanaskie retired yesterday, bringing to a close nearly 25 years of distinguished service as a federal judge, of which the last eight years were as a judge on the Third Circuit. Never flashy or ideological, he simply worked to get each case right. The Third Circuit is a centrist, practical court, and to me Vanaskie was its most centrist, practical judge.
I don’t expect to see another Third Circuit nominee like Vanaskie in my lifetime. He was a centrist nominated for elevation by President Obama in August 2009 with two Democratic home-state senators and a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority. He was 56 years old when he joined the Third Circuit, and he is 9 years older than Judge Michael Chagares, 4 years older than Judge Kent Jordan, and 12 years older than Judge Thomas Hardiman, even though those three had been nominated by the previous administration. Heaven knows what inspired 20 Republican Senators to vote against his nomination. His Senate Judiciary questionnaire may be the least controversial one you’ll ever see, right on down to his past presidency of his high school alumni association and his co-chairmanship of the circuit task force on libraries.
Vanaskie’s November announcement that he was taking senior status was a bombshell. Going senior just days after he became eligible to do so, and thereby creating a key fourth opening on the court to be filled by a manifestly unfit president, is one of the the most stunning and consequential Third Circuit developments in many years. It was an ironic ending to a drama-free quarter-century on the bench—but then, it was fitting that a judge who ignored partisan concerns throughout his judicial career would ignore them at the end, too.
Happily, Vanaskie’s retirement from the court is not the end of his legal career. According to media reports, he plans to work with a mediation firm and a start-up company developing a data-analysis program. His passion for technological innovation is long-standing: he spearheaded the Middle District’s early adoption of electronic filing and chaired the federal judiciary’s Committee on Information Technology.
I’ll give the final word to two of Vanaskie’s district court colleagues, quoted in the local newspaper article announcing his retirement:
“He sums up all the good things we want to have in a judge,” said Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo. “He had a wonderful temperament. He was bright. He was fair and respectful to all, not just lawyers, but all litigants and court personnel.”
Vanaskie remained down to earth, said Senior U.S. District Judge James Munley. He maintained an office at the federal courthouse in Scranton and was always willing to help fellow judges.
“He was a friend, one you could always go to for advice,” Munley said. “He is a remarkable person and had been a leader of our court … He will be greatly missed.”