As part of the United States Senate’s obligation to advise and consent to federal judicial appointments, senators are often involved in recommending candidates for vacancies in their home state.
Since President Joe Biden took office last year, Colorado senators have been particularly quick to select candidates, submit names to the White House and secure confirmation of four new federal justices so far. To facilitate the process, the senses. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper from the United States rely on a 10-member advisory committee to vet the dozens of nominations.
On Tuesday, two committee members spoke to lawyers and judges about their process and what people can expect when applying for a coveted lifetime judicial appointment.
“How important is the political involvement/connection? We don’t care about that. Honestly, we don’t,” said Michelle Lucero, co-chair of the judicial advisory committee. “We sent names that honestly the senators have never heard of.”
Frances Koncilja, another member, explained that candidates receive interviews in front of the committee for 30 to 45 minutes, but she is more interested in seeing how well each candidate can write.
“I spend a lot of time writing samples because to me it’s an indication of whether people are going to keep their asses in the chair and do their job. It’s important to be involved in the community and get out there. and give speeches, but at the end of the day you have to do the work,” Koncilja said.
The online presentation, sponsored by the Federal Law School and several other legal organizations, came at the end of Bennet and Hickenlooper who quickly funneled candidates to the White House amid high judicial turnover on the federal bench. Since Biden took office, he has appointed three district court judges and an appellate judge in Colorado, and has two other vacancies expected to take effect next year on the district court.
News of the most recent vacancy came in late July, as U.S. District Court Judge Raymond P. Moore announced he would step down as an active judge in June 2023. Koncilja and Lucero did not disclose how the senators would choose finalists for that seat, but suggested that Bennet and Hickenlooper might choose to reuse nominations from previous vacancies.
The next day, Bennet and Hickenlooper passed on their list of finalists for Moore’s seat to the Biden administration without seeking new candidates. Barring unforeseen events, this means that the Advisory Board will likely not have the opportunity to screen potential candidates for the United States District Court for several years. If Biden succeeds in making five appointments to the seven-member trial court, the next member eligible to retire — in 2024 — is Chief Justice Philip A. Brimmer, appointed by George W. Bush.
Koncilja, a former Colorado Public Utilities Commission commissioner who has also been involved in selecting candidates for state judgeships, spoke about her personal priorities for reshaping the federal bench. She would like to improve the candidate pipeline from less populated areas of Colorado, as well as increase the number of federal magistrate judges appointed to district judgeships. The first, US District Court Judge Nina Y. Wang, took office last month after seven years as a magistrate.
But Koncilja also mentioned that the advisory committee’s recent work was prompted by a December 2020 letter from Dana Remus, the new White House counsel for the Biden administration. Remus, in addition to seeking three senator names per district court vacancy, indicated that Biden was interested in nominating judges who were demographically diverse and had historically underrepresented backgrounds, such as being a public defender.
“We are bound by Remus’ letter,” Koncilja said. “That’s not to say there won’t be a recommendation from the committee to send the name of a white man, but the political realities are that this White House has indicated that they want to have a much more diverse federal bench. than in the past, so we have to take that into account.”
So far, the committee’s work has aligned with this directive. Colorado senators sent a total of seven names to the administration for various district court vacancies, including four women, five people of color and a workers’ rights attorney.
Lucero, who is general counsel for Children’s Hospital Colorado, said senators choose who sits on the advisory committee. Members usually cast a wide net for candidates when a sitting judge announces his retirement. The committee also sits with the outgoing judge and the chief justice, when possible, to discuss the needs of the court and the qualities of a successful candidate.
She said the committee had undergone training on implicit and explicit biases so members could be more mindful of their decision-making process. Apparently, the senators and the White House responded favorably.
“They kind of see us as a best practice. They like what we’ve done,” Lucero said.
In addition to a person’s writing ability and its various characteristics, Koncilja said candidates should be able to understand the nuances of legal analysis, otherwise an appeals court would find fault with their judicial reasoning. . Lucero cautioned against using social media, saying online posts are less crucial to the committee, but something the White House likely cares about.
Typically, there are between 20 and 40 applications for a vacancy. Lucero said the senators leave the selection process to the committee and that the members send enough names for Bennet and Hickenlooper to be interviewed personally so that the senators end up with three candidates for the White House.
“Both senators take this very seriously. Senator Bennet has taken this seriously for a long time. Senator Hickenlooper since he was both mayor (of Denver) and then governor knows how important judicial selection is,” said said Koncilja.
According to the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, which is based at the University of Denver, about two dozen states in 2017 had senators who headed judicial selection committees, either jointly or for individual office. of the Senate. Hickenlooper’s predecessor as senator, Cory Gardner, created a separate committee from Bennet’s, though the two committees presented a virtually identical list of finalists to the Obama administration in 2016.
Koncilja said the advisory board does not deal with appeals court candidates, adding that previous administrations had “deemed the positions to be theirs.” She and Lucero said there are now several viable paths to the district court bench, but the ability to choose new judges is limited because Colorado, whose population has nearly doubled since 1984, has received no new ones. judge of Congress ever since.
Rather, it was the wave of retirements that spurred the committee into recent action.
“We have put together candidates, I think, who reflect the community,” Koncilja said. “And for me, that’s very important.