Administration’s Renewed Focus on Filling Federal Court Vacancies Reveals Mixed Bag of Nominees


Federal judicial vacancies reached critical levels during President Barack Obama’s first term, but there’s reason to think that is starting to change. Just after the election President Obama nominated seven individuals to fill District Court judicial vacancies, including two seats in the nation’s busiest court in Manhattan. It was a bold move that went largely unnoticed in the press but could have significant consequences for the future of the federal judiciary. And with more than 100 vacancies on the federal bench nationwide, the move couldn’t come soon enough.

Two of the seven nominees, former FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni and New York state Judge Analisa Torres, were nominated to fill vacancies in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, one of the busiest federal courts in the country where a significant degree of anti-terrorism and anti-corporate fraud litigation occurs. While both women bring significant experience with them, Caproni’s nomination is one that deserves a second look.

Caproni served as the FBI’s general counsel from 2003 to 2011 where she became embroiled in the FBI’s use of “exigent letters” to try and legally justify FBI domestic surveillance efforts including warrantless wiretaps of US civilians. Caproni left the FBI to become deputy general counsel at Northrop Grumman Corporation, a defense systems manufacturer. Caproni also worked in other enforcement roles, including time at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn. She also did stints at Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, white-shoe law firms known for their cozy relationships with the banking and finance industries.

Given the fact that so much terrorism-related litigation and Wall Street fraud litigation originates in the Southern District Court of New York it’s hard to see how Caproni’s presence on the federal bench would be a good thing. She is, in short, representative of the worst of the Bush-era administrations and policies that the Obama administration just can’t seem to shake and her nomination to the federal bench is, to put it mildly, a disappointment.

Thankfully Torres offers a much different picture, as are the remaining nominees. Torres is currently a state court judge, but previously worked as a teacher. She is a former City Planning Commissioner and currently serves as the Chair of the  Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corp. Given the fact that district court judges handle the trials and are in many ways the front-lines of the federal bench Torres involvement in city management and her time as a state court judge will serve her well should she be confirmed.

Colorado federal public defender Raymond P. Moore was nominated to fill a vacancy in the U.S. District Court in Colorado. Moore’s career includes a significant amount of time as a public defender. This background in the public defenders office is refreshing to see in a federal judiciary dominated by former prosecutors. Moore isn’t the only public defender nominated for the federal bench. Florida Circuit Court Judge William L. Thomas was nominated to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Before becoming a judge he served as an Assistant Federal Public Defender but began his legal career as an Assistant Public Defender at the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office in 1994. 

Derrick Kahala Watson, if confirmed, would be the only person of Native Hawaiian ancestry on the federal bench. Watson is currently an assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the civil division and is one of two federal prosecutors nominated to the bench. New Mexico U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales was also nominated. Gonzales spent 11 years with the New Mexico U.S. Attorney’s office before his appointment to the head position. In that capacity, he serves on the Attorney General Advisory Committee’s subcommittees on Native American Issues and Southwest Border and Immigration Issues, and would be a welcome addition to a federal bench that will be dealing with the rapidly changing demographics of the Southwest.

Finally, President Obama nominated Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. O’Connell has been a Superior Court judge since 2005. Prior the becoming a judge she was a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and worked for a time in the organized crime and terrorism section of the U.S. Attorneys office. 

As we’ve seen with President Obama’s nominations during his first term, this is a diverse and multi-talented cohort of federal judicial nominees. Many of the nominees built careers serving the most vulnerable, an important qualification as poverty is increasingly a status offense. And while it’s impossible to predict how any of these judges would rule on reproductive justice issues, we can be almost certain they are more willing to protect a woman’s fundamental right to privacy from government overreach than any nominees Mitt Romney would have offered up.

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