What Do We Know About Federal District Judge Appointments?

by Tarica LaBossiere

A while back, I was passed a specific research request from the Dean of our college of law. I was asked to compile (1) shortlists of federal judge candidates since 1980 to the Southern District of Florida Court, and (2) a list of federal JNC members during the same time frame.

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Taking on this project, I quickly realized how little I knew about federal district court judge appointments. At the time, the intense debate regarding Justice Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court was still ongoing. The rash of conservative appointments to federal appeals courts by our sitting president was headlining. I watched the debates, and read the articles, feeling comfortable in my knowledge of federal judgeships and its lack of relationship to anything local (dual sovereignty being what it is and all).  It’s unsettling that I had no idea how federal district court judges were selected in my own state. I simply did not think about the relationship between states and their corresponding federal courts. But, no time like the present to learn something new!

In Florida, selection of the Florida Northern, Middle, and Southern District judges is charged to the Florida Federal Judicial Nominating Commission (“JNC”). The JNC is made up of select members of the Florida Bar, appointed by a Presiding or Non-Presiding Florida Senator. According to the JNC’s Rules of Procedure, at the direction of the US President or one of the Florida Senators, the JNC will invite applications for US District Judge positions by providing public notice via the Florida Bar News, Federal Bar Associations for the applicable Federal Judicial Districts, or any other publication of general circulation.

The application deadline is identified by the JNC Chair at least 30 days from the initial invitation. Applicants must submit their Application and all designated materials by the assigned due date. All application materials (subject to limitations on highly sensitive personal information and information provided by a government agency) are made available to the general public for review. The JNC accepts written comments in regard to applicants from interested members of the community. Applicants are ranked, and the highest ranked are invited to interview. Applicant interviews are also open to the public.

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Within 60 days of the application deadline, JNC District Conference members will identify the finalists to be forwarded in writing to the Florida Senators. Finalists must possess the “professional qualifications, character, integrity, intellect, experience, temperament, professional competence, maturity, capacity for growth, and other characteristics necessary to perform the duties of that office and uphold the public trust.”

A list of finalists’ names, that neither the Presiding Senator nor the Non-Presiding Senator object to, is forwarded to the President for nomination. A confirmation hearing is then held by the US Senate in order to appoint or deny the President’s nominee.  If confirmed by the US Senate, we then have a lifetime appointed Florida Federal District Judge.

So, back to the issue at hand. Where was I going to find a list of never nominated nominees to the Southern District Court and the names of the people who were responsible for nominating them? And, all the way back to 1980!

Whelp, why not follow the process trail? I decided to start by searching for the JNC members first. The Florida Federal JNC is made up of members of the Florida Bar, so I began at the Florida Bar website. Current members were posted on the Florida Federal JNC page. Easy. Past members, however, proved to be a bit trickier.

Luckily, the Florida Bar has extensive Online Journal and News Archives dating as far back as 1976. Unfortunately, the Archives became sparser the further back in time I went, and the generic search tool left little to be desired.  Still, this was a great place to start since members lists were typically published in the journal upon appointment. I did not know every JNC appointment date going back until 1980, but I did know that members were appointed for 2-year terms, and I was able to map out the specific years I needed to find. I found members lists as far back as 2001. This is where it got tricky.

I could no longer find any Florida Federal JNC Members Lists in the Archives. I contacted the Florida Bar, the Statewide Chair of the Florida Federal JNC, and each District Conference Chair. None of which could provide me with any more information than I had found searching through Florida Bar publications. Additionally, the Southern District Conference Chair was unable to provide me with any of the past shortlists of nominees for their district. The Florida Bar and most of the Chairs suggested contacting the Senators’ offices. So, I did.

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I started with Senator Marco Rubio, who, according to Rule 5 of the JNC Rules of Procedure, would be the Presiding Senator for the Florida Federal JNC due to his party affiliation being the same as the sitting President’s. His office was unable to provide any information regarding the Southern District judgeship shortlists, and suggested I contacted the Florida Bar. Dead end.

Senator Bill Nelson, the Florida JNC’s then Non-Presiding Senator, had just been voted out of office in a recent election. With the reorganization of the office for the newly appointed senator taking priority, the office was unable to look into my request.

I forged on. I scavenged local news archives, contacted each district’s Clerk of Courts and Courthouses, searched Google and the Wayback Machine (just in case archived websites may have at one point published this information, even though it was no longer available on the updates site), tried the Florida State Law Library (special thanks to the librarians who were so generous in assisting with this research!), and the Law Library of Congress. I found nothing more on the JNC Members, and only a 2009 shortlist for the Southern District of Florida on an out-of-date, obscure blog site. This was the most outside contact I had ever needed for a research assignment, and it produced such unfulfilling results.

To me, half the requested members lists and only one of the shortlists didn’t seem like much. But I exhausted many of my options, and the deadline to submit to the Dean was drawing near. So, I organized my findings, and forwarded them to my Senior Associate Director, along with the list of places I searched, people I attempted to contact, and the various responses I received. In turn, my Associate Director forwarded the information to our Dean, explaining our research methods, the information found, and the long shot alternative resources we were still exploring. We were thanked graciously for our work, and that was that. I feel that I learned far more information than I provided, and I was reminded why it is exciting to be a law librarian. All the fun is in the never-ending learning experience!

[1] Fed. Judicial Nominating Comm’n of Fla. R. Proc. Rule 5.

[2] Fed. Judicial Nominating Comm’n of Fla. R. Proc. Rule 3.

This entry was posted in elections, Factual & Investigative Research, Faculty services and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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