Will A New Administration Impact MN Federal Judge Appointments?

MINNESOTA – Will Minnesota’s federal judicial vacancies be delayed for months by what some have called a partial shutdown of the nation’s court system due to a new presidential administration?

When Minnesota Judges Donovan Frank and Ann Montgomery assumed “senior status” earlier this year – a form of retirement that allows judges to maintain part-time or full case loads – it created two of the nation’s 38 “judicial emergency” openings, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Minnesota’s Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken created a bipartisan judicial selection committee just days before Judge Frank’s senior status became official this past October to review applications for the openings.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that judicial scholars say the task of appointing a Supreme Court justice will more than likely be a priority in the White House and in the U.S. Senate when Donald Trump becomes President.

Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who spent nearly 30 years with the Federal Judicial Center, the national policymaking body for federal courts told the Star Tribune, “This whole business of filling vacancies at one point was a ministerial task: The senators filled vacancies because that’s just what you did.  Having the time from nomination to confirmation now being in the hundreds of days is just one more indication of how polarization prevents the government from doing most anything.”

U.S. Senators normally take the lead on recommending candidates for their home state, but if the senators and the President are not of the same party, the senator’s recommendations can hold less influence.  Therefore a Republican member of Congress could suddenly have greater influence on who Trump nominates, but only the home state’s senators can formally approve or object to a nominee receiving a confirmation hearing or a Senate vote.

The Star Tribune reports that the nation’s federal district and circuit courts currently have 105 vacancies with 59 pending nominations at press time.  One position has been open for nearly 11 years and Texas alone has 11 seats to fill that have been open as long as 5 years.

Tom Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney and co-chair of the Klobuchar-Franken task force said that this is the first time in at least 20 years that Minnesota has had two federal court vacancies at the same time.  The task force has been reviewing possible nominees since last month.

A Klobuchar spokesperson told The Star Tribune that the task force have lined up an impressive group of applicants and will work with Trump’s White House Counsel’s office to ensure that the process continues smoothly.  The committee hopes to settle on two candidates before Trump’s  January 20th inauguration.  Heffelfinger said that if the names of candidates are submitted to the Trump transition team prior to Inauguration Day, they will be the first considered by the White House and the first to be considered by the Senate. “So they should be the first to get confirmed.  If you wait until after the inauguration, there will be a flood of names and Minnesota could wait a couple of years,” he said.

A delay of several years could add more burdens to Minnesota’s already overworked full-time federal judge bench.  Federal data as of June 2016 shows that Minnesota’s district ranks 16th out of 94 nationally in total filings per judgeship and ninth in terms of pending cases.

Donna Azarian