The Senate confirmed the first nominees to federal district courts in California under President Donald Trump, as “judicial emergencies” in the state worsen amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The appointees confirmed over Tuesday and Wednesday will fill three trial court seats covering Los Angeles and one covering San Diego. Each seat is considered a “judicial emergency,” vacancies that significantly increase the workload for remaining judges.
The confirmations have been a long time coming in a Republican-led Senate that has prioritized appeals court nominees and district court picks for states represented by GOP senators. California is represented by two Democrats.
Two of the newly minted judges were first nominated in November 2018 and the other two a year later. Eleven more nominees to California courts are in the nominations pipeline, but their Senate fate is uncertain.
The newest appointees are federal prosecutor Todd Wallace Robinson to the Southern District of California, and attorney Mark C. Scarsi, state superior court judge Stanley Blumenfeld, and attorney John W. Holcomb to the Central District of California.
“As a Court, we are excited to have three new colleagues,” Central District of California Chief Judge Philip S. Gutierrez said in a statement. “We are grateful to the Senate for confirming them. They have wonderful backgrounds and will be stellar District Judges.”
The Senate also confirmed state court judges David W. Dugan and Stephen P. McGlynn to the Southern District of Illinois, which covers East St. Louis, on Wednesday. And it invoked cloture, or ended debate, on the nomination of U.S. Magistrate Judge Iain D. Johnston, who is nominated to the Northern District of Illinois, which covers Chicago.
The Senate is also expected to vote on cloture for state court judge Franklin Ulyses Valderrama, who is also nominated to the Northern District.
The Central District appointees will help a situation in that court made worse by the conditions under the virus.
Virginia A. Phillips, then-chief judge of the Central District, in April asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which it operates under, to suspend Speedy Trial Act deadlines to relieve the “significant backlog of trials” the court anticipates it will have after the pandemic is over.
“This is critical for us, given that all ten of our district judge vacancies have been declared judicial emergencies, and that we have an extremely heavy caseload,” Phillips said in an email to Bloomberg Law at the time.
As of Phillips’ April letter, each active judge in the Central District handled almost double the national average of estimated cases per judge. That request followed an October 2019 letter Phillips sent to lawmakers urging them to quickly fill the vacancies.
While the confirmations will ease some of the burden in California federal courts, there are multiple seats left to fill—many of which are also considered emergencies. On the Central District alone, seven judicial vacancies, all emergencies, remain. The Los Angeles court has 27 authorized judgeships and a temporary one.
Other federal courts in California are also asking for assistance. The Eastern District of California similarly requested the Ninth Circuit delay its Speedy Trial Act deadlines for up to a year, citing its vacancies. Both vacancies on the six-judge court are considered emergencies.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated our pre-existing emergency such that there simply are no other options for alleviating our calendar congestion, despite the many steps we have been taking to manage the current crisis since its onset,” Eastern District Chief Judge Kimberly J. Mueller said in the letter.
Trump also announced two more district court picks Wednesday, bringing the number of selections in the pipeline to about 35 assuming the remaining two Illinois nominees are confirmed.
The planned nominees are federal prosecutor Charles Edward Atchley and Justice Department principal deputy assistant attorney general Katherine A. Crytzer, who would fill the only two vacancies on the Eastern District of Tennessee that covers Chattanooga and Knoxville.
One of those nominees would fill a seat vacated by the Eastern District’s Chief Judge Pamela Reeves, who died after a two-year battle with cancer Sept. 10. That’s a fairly quick nomination.
But it’s not clear how many Trump nominees will make it through this year due to election time constraints and whatever scenario unfolds after that.
There’s not much time left for the Senate to get nominations though, especially when most of them have yet to have a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, who follows judicial nominations.
While some judges could be confirmed in a lame duck period following the election, Tobais said that given what’s happened during similar periods “I’m not very sanguine that they’ll all make it.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), speaking at a virtual Federalist Society event Sept. 4, said he anticipated about 30 more confirmations. Since then, the Senate has confirmed about a third of that figure.