ABA President's Message

A Proud Tradition

The ABA is uniquely ‘well-qualified’ to assess potential federal judicial nominees

Posted Apr 1, 2010 4:00 AM CDT
By Carolyn B. Lamm

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Carolyn Lamm
Photo by Ak Vogel

The nation’s federal and state courts always command the attention of the American Bar Association.

Central to the ABA’s core function is to protect the rule of law and access to justice, both of which are advanced by a judiciary of high caliber.

Since the Eisenhower administration, the ABA has conducted peer reviews of potential federal judicial nominees. With the Obama administration, the association has resumed its long-standing role of conducting evaluations on a pre-nomination basis. Given frequent inquiries about the ABA’s role in that process, it is important to highlight the work of the Standing Commit tee on the Federal Judiciary, the independent ABA committee that conducts this valuable function.

The standing committee is composed of a chair and 14 other lawyers representing each of the federal circuits. Members are selected for their sound judgment, discretion and knowledge of the legal communities in which they practice. They are trial, appellate and corporate lawyers. They practice in big and small firms and teach law. It is a diverse committee. Each of these lawyers volunteers upwards of a thousand hours a year to the judicial evaluation process.

CONFIDENTIAL PROCESS

The ABA maintains a strict firewall between the standing committee’s work and its policy functions. Because evaluations are conducted confidentially, no one in ABA leadership knows when the committee is doing its work or how many prospective nominees are in the pipeline at any given time. The association releases its rating only after the president makes a nom ination. The ABA leadership learns the names and ratings of nominees when the public does. The committee confidentially consults individual ABA leaders only if they have personal knowledge of a nominee’s qualifications.

The standing committee conducts unbiased peer reviews focusing strictly on professional qualifications— integrity, professional competence and judicial temper? ament. Starting with responses of prospective nominees to a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, the committee conducts in-depth research and confidential interviews with lawyers and judges who have personal knowledge of a potential nominee’s background.

As a former standing committee member from the D.C. Circuit, I am familiar with the level of effort in this process. Committee members scrutinize a potential nominee’s legal writings and personally interview him or her. Every prospective nominee is given the opportunity to respond to and discuss any adverse information that might lead to a possible “not qualified” rating.

Information is compiled into a detailed confidential report and distributed to the entire committee for careful consideration and a vote. The committee releases a rating of “well-qualified,” “qualified” or “not qualified.” It publicly provides an explanation for a rating only if requested by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Substantial courtroom and trial experience is important in assessing the professional qualifications of lawyers and judges to serve on the federal bench. But contrary to recent public comments, prior judicial service is not required for a “well-qualified” rating.

Potential nominees with prior judicial experience often have well-established records that are useful in assessing their integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament. But some nominees who have received the highest rating had no prior judicial experience. The “breadth of professional experience” considered by the standing committee is as varied as the backgrounds and credentials of the lawyers and judges the president nominates.

During the 110th Congress, the standing committee released ratings on some 102 nominations to the lower federal courts. During the current Congress, as of this writing, the committee has released ratings on 15 cir-cuit court and 33 district court nominations. The committee was pleased to conduct its evaluation and to testify on behalf of the ABA before the Senate Judiciary Commit tee during the confirmation hearings of Justice Sonia Soto mayor. The association’s public statement provides a sense of the depth and scope of the committee’s work.

That statement and the criteria the committee applies in evaluating all nominees are available at abanet.org/scfedjud, which includes the background booklet, ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary: What It Is and How It Works.

The ABA is honored to have worked with so many presidents and Senate Judiciary Committees for more than 50 years. We believe our careful peer review helps the White House and Congress make more informed decisions on judicial nominations.

This is a significant contribution to the profession’s and the public’s interest in ensuring access to justice and preserving the rule of law.

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