Judicial Selection: The Nuts and Bolts of Making it to the Bench
Tony W. Torain, II
So, how does one become a judge? District 4 of The National Association of Women Judges (“NAWJ”), which includes Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia, held a forum on January 26, 2012 at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes’ Baltimore office where that important questioned was analyzed. Judge Claudia Barber, the director of District 4 and an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in the District of Columbia, assembled a distinguished panel of sitting judges and other lawyers involved in the judicial nominations process, which sought to demystify the ascension to a judgeship for the audience. The attendees included attorneys, both male and female, and all ages and levels of practice. At the forum, the panelists informed aspiring judges on the nuts and bolts of judicial selection.
Judge Barber started the forum by explaining the rich history of NAWJ. Founded in 1979, the NAWJ focuses on increasing diversity in the judiciary. The association promotes an awareness of the importance of having a diverse bench and bar. After Judge Barber’s comments, Judge Ellen Hollander, who sits on the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, gave opening remarks.
Judge Hollander began by emphasizing the value of gender diversity in the judiciary and giving the history of gender diversity in Maryland’s legal community. She noted that in 1901, Henrietta Maddox was the first women to graduate from Baltimore Law School. After graduating from law school, Maddox applied for admission to the bar with the Maryland Court of Appeals. Unfortunately, Maryland’s highest court denied her application because of her gender. Determined to practice law, Maddox appeared before Maryland’s General Assembly, along with other female attorneys from across the country, to persuade the Legislature to pass a bill to allow women to practice in Maryland. In 1902, the General Assembly passed the law, and Maddox, who passed the bar exam with flying colors, was admitted to the Maryland Bar.
Judge Hollander also recognized Kathryn J. DuFour, the first female judge in Maryland. Women like Maddox and DuFour have paved the way for gender diversity in the legal profession. Judge Hollander noted the role of women jurists in combating domestic violence, in the development of the “battered women’s syndrome” defense, and in facilitating family law cases involving children.
After Judge Hollander’s inspiring remarks, a lively panel discussion ensued. Judge Marcella Holland, Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, was the forum’s moderator. The panelists included: Judge Judith Dowd of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Associate Judge Angela Eaves of the Circuit Court for Harford County, Charles Fuller, Esquire of the Howard County Judicial Nomination Commission, Chief Special Master Patricia Campbell-Smith of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and Marisa A. Trasatti, Esquire, Principal at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes and Co-Chair of the Maryland Defense Counsel Judicial Selections Committee.
Marisa Trasatti, Esquire, began the panel discussion by explaining Maryland Defense Counsel as an entity. She noted that Maryland Defense Counsel is a civil defense association seeking to improve the quality of justice. She discussed the qualities that Maryland Defense Counsel’s Judicial Selection Committee seeks in a judicial candidate and stated,“ We want the best candidates on the bench,” and “We want to ensure the fair and efficient administration of justice.” Ms. Trasatti also provided the attendees with a “cheat sheet” of questions asked of candidates who apply for trial court and appellate bench positions.
Next, Judge Judith Dowd explained the requirements for becoming a federal ALJ. “The selection process is a merit based system. You don’t have to worry about being too political,” Judge Dowd explained. To become a federal ALJ, you must be an active member of the bar, in good standing, and have at least seven years experience in litigation. According to Judge Dowd, you have to keep a record of cases you handled and be prepared to discuss the extent to which you were involved. In addition to the application to Office of Personnel Management, an applicant must take a written exam, which simulates the composition of an opinion, and attend an interview.
Attendees next had the privilege of hearing the first African American Panamanian native and second female judge to ever serve on the Circuit Court for Harford County, Judge Angela Eaves. Judge Eaves mentioned her anxiety in running for the Circuit Court bench in Harford County, predominantly conservative and less diverse area. She overcame her fears by embracing her differences and being visible in the community. “Get involved in the community,” Judge Eaves remarked. Judge Eaves also left the audience with three important things to remember for becoming a judge. First, Judge Eaves admonished aspiring judges to enhance their problem-solving skills. Second, it is important to have patience with litigants and attorneys. Finally, candidates for the judiciary must always be prepared to make a just and fair decision. These traits make for exemplary judicial temperament.
Chief Special Master Pamela Campbell-Smith, who sits on the Court of Federal Claims, emphasized ways in which her science and engineering background and extensive clerkship experience helped her on her quest to the bench. In 1991, she served as an extern to Judge John Minor Wisdom on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She had also clerked for three other federal judges. While in law school, Chief Special Master Campbell-Smith worked in an environmental law clinic for half of a summer and worked for Exxon Mobile in the second half. “Diversity of experience will help you see both sides of the case.” In the context of which court or administrative body candidates should select in their pursuit of a place in the judiciary, she stated, “Focus on where the trends are going.”
Finally, the sole male on the panel, Charles Fuller, Esquire of the Howard County Maryland District 9 Judicial Nominating Commission addressed the audience. Mr. Fuller discussed the qualifications his Commission seeks when they present the “short” list of candidates to the Governor. “We investigate every piece of information. If you have a problem with another attorney, get it right if you can,” Mr. Fuller stated frankly. Each candidate completes questionnaire, and the Commissioner begins the investigation. Then, each Commissioner is assigned an applicant and performs a background check on that applicant based on his or her questionnaire. Copies of that questionnaire are also provided to state and local bar associations. Mr. Fuller also noted that the Commission’s proceedings are strictly confidential. After the investigation, the Commission has a secret vote and submits a “short” list of candidates to the Governor. Finally, Mr. Fuller stated the importance of joining various bar associations, specifically specialty bar associations, like NAWJ and the Women’s Bar Association.
How does one become judge? In addition to years of experience in the courtroom, becoming a part of the community, following the trends, pursuing diverse opportunities, and maintaining a reputation of collegiality certainly help. It is important that the members of the judiciary at large possess these qualities to ensure that litigants and advocates can present their disputes to a “fair and independent judiciary.” It is also important to have diversity in the judiciary. Diversity on the bench ensures the full consideration of the interests of the entire community. Ultimately, aspiring judges must “honor and respect the judicial office as a public trust and strive to enhance and maintain public confidence in our legal system,” as stated in the Preamble to Maryland’s Code of Judicial Conduct.
Tony W. Torain, II is an associate in Semmes, Bowen Semmes’ Workers’ Compensation and Employers’ Liability practice.
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