Two retirement announcements from judges on the federal trial covering Seattle give President Joe Biden a unique opportunity to replace an entire bench in a district that’s home to Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft.
Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez and Judge Richard Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington both announced plans recently to take senior status. For roughly two years, they were the only active judges on the seven-seat court.
The opportunity to completely refresh the bench in any district—let alone one that’s an important venue for large technology companies as well as environment and tribal litigation—is unusual.
“I can’t think of the last time we’ve seen anything of this magnitude,” Marin Levy, a law professor at Duke University who studies the federal judiciary, said of the turnover.
Biden has already appointed three judges to the court, including former state judge David Estudillo, who will become chief judge after Martinez, even though he only joined the court last October. Another nomination is pending in the Senate and Biden now has three more seats to fill.
Martinez has been eligible for senior status, a form of semi-retirement available to judges once they meet certain criteria, for more than two years. “The only reason I have not taken senior status is simply because we did not have anyone behind me who would be eligible to become the chief,” Martinez said.
But with three new judges on the court appointed by Biden, Martinez said he and Jones decided it was time go.
They are leaving a court that frequently hears cases involving corporate giants based in the Seattle area. Over the past 12 months, Amazon.com Inc. had 59 appearances in the district, according to Bloomberg Law’s litigation analytics.
“Next to Silicon Valley, we probably have more high tech here than anywhere else,” Martinez said. The new judges will also take on legacy cases for the court, including litigation stemming from a 1970s decision, known as the “Bolt decision,” that gave local tribes rights to half of the fish catch.
Many of the court’s vacancies predate Biden’s presidency, but Donald Trump didn’t name a single judge to the district. In the Senate, district nominees—unlike those for circuits—still need backing form their home state senators, and Washington is represented by two Democrats.
Already, the bipartisan judicial nominations commission set up by Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are looking for candidates to fill Jones and Martinez’s seats.
The turnover will bring in a new era for the court, which will have a bench that could stay unchanged for years.
Levy said in her research she’s come across courts that have a third of their bench turn over feel the need to go on a retreat to discuss the norms of the court has a whole.
“This is taking things to a whole other level clearly,” Levy said.
So far, Biden has prioritized demographic and professional diversity in his judicial nominations, and his nominations to the Western District are no exception. Lauren King, is the first American Indian federal judge in the state; Tana Lin is the first Asian American federal judge in the state and a former civil rights attorney and public defender; and Estudillo was a solo practitioner focused on immigration law prior to becoming a judge.
“It’s a good, diverse, and talented set, but as with any new judges, there’s going to be an acclimation period. As a practitioner, you have to learn a judge’s style,” said Andrew Escobar, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw in Seattle who focuses on real estate and investment disputes.
The turnover will also likely mean a quick ascension to chief judge for Estudillo, who previously served as a state superior court judge for five years.
Martinez said Estudillo has been shadowing him virtually via Zoom meetings since joining the bench to help prepare for the role, which also now includes leading the court’s pandemic response.
During the pandemic, the Western District was one of the first in the U.S. that had to respond to growing Covid-19 infections in Washington, and later, the district held what is believed to be the first virtual jury trial in the federal courts.
The court’s senior status judges could provide a measure of continuity, court experts said.
“In a situation like this, the seniors are going to be really important,” said Jeremy Fogel, a former federal district judge and executive director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute. “They’re going to be the mentors, they’re going to be the people who newer judges are inevitably going to need to look to because there isn’t going to be anybody else.”
Like many short-staffed courts, the Western District of Washington relies on senior judges to complete its work. Judges can go senior once they’re over 65 and their age plus years of experience equals 80. As a senior judge, they can continue to work on the court while taking on a lighter caseload.
In the next few months, Martinez said he expects to see senior judges finally cutting back on their cases. “Our senior judges have carried an incredible load,” Martinez said.
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