Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Federal Judicial Ratings

Last week, former White House lawyer Steven J. Menashi was confirmed 51-41 to a lifetime judicial appointment on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, over strong objections from Senate Democrats over Menashi's role in developing White House immigration policies and his past writings on LGBTQ issues. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer described the nominee as "one of the most contemptible" he had ever considered during his time in the Senate, and Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine even crossed party lines to vote against his confirmation.

Despite this controversy, Menashi had received a rating of "Well Qualified" from the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which has played a role in the federal judicial nomination process since the Eisenhower administration. The history of the ABA's evaluation process was described last year in the ABA Journal. The committee itself also provides a detailed backgrounder document, Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary: What it Is and How It Works. This document includes sample copies of the questionnaires and a template for the committee's confidential formal report.

As the ABA Journal article noted, "ratings are never made public until a judicial candidate has been officially nominated, and it elaborates on what is discovered during the evaluation process only if committee members are asked to testify before the Senate." A rating of "Not Qualified" may sink a potential nomination before a public announcement, or may complicate the confirmation process, as with a current Ninth Circuit nominee. Lawrence VanDyke made headlines for his emotional reaction to a negative ABA rating during his October confirmation hearing, disputing the committee's negative assessment of his impartiality and pointing to problems with the interview process. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on his nomination on Thursday.

Ratings for federal judicial nominees dating back to the 101st Congress (1989) are available on the Standing Committee's website. For the committee's ratings of U.S. Supreme Court nominees, more detailed rating information back to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg can be found on the committee website as well. Earlier U.S. Supreme Court nominee rating summaries from 1956-2010 are compiled in table 4-16 of The Supreme Court Compendium: Data, Decisions, and Developments, 4th ed. (Reference KF8742 .S914 2015 & online).

Other assessment tools for federal judges include the interview comments in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary (online in Westlaw Edge), which provide evaluations from attorneys who have appeared before the judge. Only current federal judges are included in this resource, meaning that neither Menashi nor VanDyke have profiles yet. For judges with completed evaluations, though, AFJ can be a valuable insight into the judge's temperament and judicial philosophy. For additional resources that feature judge profiles, check out the library's research guide to Directories of Courts & Judges or Ask a Librarian.