Judge David Estudillo – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington is the most understaffed court in the country, with only two active judges performing the work of seven.[1]  The court has not seen a new appointment in 14 years, but 2021 looks like the year that the stalemate will break and a new judge will be appointed.  State court judge David Estudillo is hoping to be that judge.

Background

David G. Estudillo was born in 1974 in Sunnyside, Washington, the son of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States in the 1960s as part of the Bracero program.[2]  One of ten children, Estudillo worked at the family store before getting a B.A. from the University of Washington in 1996 and a J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law in 1999.  

After graduating, Estudillo began his legal career at the Moses Lake satellite office of Jeffers, Danielson, Sonn, & Aylward, P.S.[3]  In 2002, he shifted to Scheer & Zender LLP.  In 2005, Estudillo opened a solo legal practice in Moses Lake, practicing there until 2015.

In 2015, Estudillo was appointed by Governor Jay Inslee to the Grant County Superior Court, replacing Judge Evan Sperline and becoming the only Latino superior, district, or municipal court judge in eastern Washington.[4]  He still serves on the bench.

History of the Seat

Estudillo has been nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.  This seat opened on February 28, 2019, when Judge Ronald Leighton moved to senior status.  Due to a dispute between the Trump Administration and Washington’s U.S. Senators over the Ninth Circuit nomination of Eric Miller, no agreement was reached on district court judges, and the Administration did not nominate anyone to fill this vacancy.  President Biden nominated Estudillo on April 29, 2021.

Legal Experience

Before becoming a judge, Estudillo practiced law in Moses Lake in eastern Washington for sixteen years.  Estudillo started his career in 1999 at Jeffers, Danielson, Sonn & Aylward P.S.  From 2002 to 2005, Estudillo worked in Scheer & Zehnder LLP, handling insurance defense, insurance coverage, and plaintiff personal injury cases.[5]  Among the matters he handled there, Estudillo successfully persuaded the Court of Appeals of Washington to reverse a grant of summary judgment against a home contractor he was representing.[6]

From 2005 to 2015, Estudillo practiced at Estudillo Law Firm PLLC, where he largely focused on immigration law, representing clients before the Immigration courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and federal courts.  Estudillo also handled insurance defense work as Panel Counsel for the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company as well as some general civil litigation.[7]

Jurisprudence

Since his appointment in 2015, Estudillo has served on the Grant County Superior Court in Eastern Washington, handling civil, domestic relations, juvenile,and felony criminal cases, as well as appeals from the lower courts of limited jurisdiction.

Among the notable matters, he has handled, Estudillo presided over the murder trial of Chad Bennett, who charged with murdering his 82-year-old landlady because she was planning to evict him.[8]  During the trial, Estudillo denied defense motions for a mistrial based on the prosecution’s raising of allegedly prejudicial character evidence during the trial.[9]  Estudillo ruled that the defense had opened the door to much of the evidence and that the evidence did not influence the jury verdict.[10]  Estudillo sentenced Bennett to 55 years in prison.[11]

In another notable ruling, Estudillo denied a motion by David Nickels, on trial for first-degree murder, to disqualify the Grant County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office from prosecuting him because the elected prosecutor, Garth Dano, had previously represented Nickels.[12]  Estudillo’s ruling was reversed by the Court of Appeals in Washington (and the Washington Supreme Court), ruling that, as a general standard, where an elected prosecutor has a conflict from a prior representation of a defendant, the entire office must recuse.[13]

In other rulings, Estudillo dismissed a suit by Ahmet Hopovac, who argued (after being attacked) that the Department of Corrections had a duty to protect him while he was out on supervision as he, as a convicted felon, could not own a weapon.[14]  Estudillo ruled that the Department of Corrections had no such duty, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.[15]  

Politics and Campaigns

As judges in Washington must periodically run for re-election in order to retain their seats, Estudillo has campaigned for re-election twice (Superior Court judges have four-year terms) in 2016 and 2020, winning both times.

In 2016, Estudillo was challenged by local attorney Nick Wallace, who was the highest rated candidate to be appointed to replace Sperline on the Grant County bench by a Grant County Bar Association survey, but was passed over in favor of Estudillo by Gov. Inslee.[16]  The campaign grew heated, with Estudillo reporting Wallace to the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee for alleged misstatements in his campaign ads, and Wallace accusing Estudillo of misrepresenting the Committee’s subsequent opinion.[17]  Later, in a debate, Wallace noted that Grant County Bar Association voters had ranked him above Estudillo before the latter got Inslee’s appointment, noting: “I don’t think Jay Inslee chose the most qualified person and I want to give Grant County voters a choice.”[18]  Estudillo countered the claim that he was chosen for reasons unrelated to his qualifications, noting:

“The fact that I am Latino, the fact that my parents were from Mexico, the fact that I might look a little different than some people, that is not the defining characteristic of whether I am qualified to be a judge…[and] was not the defining qualification that was used to determine whether or not I am eligible to be a Superior Court judge.”[19]

Estudillo ultimately won the election narrowly, and was re-elected comfortably in 2020.

Outside of the judicial context, in 2018, Estudillo attended the Grant County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner/Fundraiser Saturday alongside U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse and other Republican leaders.[20]

Overall Assessment

The under-staffed Western District of Washington is, in many ways, a casualty of the nominations fight between Washington’s U.S. Senators and the Trump Administration.  Had the fight not happened, Estudillo, with ties to the local Republican Party, and fairly conservative rulings, but having been appointed by the Democratic Governor, could have been a consensus candidate that the Administration and Senators could have agreed to.  It is a bit more unusual for a Democratic Administration that seemingly has an unlimited supply of liberal lawyers to choose from to select Estudillo.

Nonetheless, Estudillo has extensive experience with civil and criminal litigation, and, as a longtime immigration practitioner, would bring an unusual perspective to the federal bench, if and when he is confirmed.

[1] Incidentally, both active judges are in their seventies, and have been eligible for senior status for years.

[2] Royal Register Editor & Ted Escobar, Superior Court Judge Earned His Way Through Life, Columbia Basin Herald, Aug. 31, 2015, https://columbiabasinherald.com/news/2015/aug/31/superior-court-judge-earned-his-way-through-2/.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] Bort v. Parker, 42 P.3d 980 (Wn. App. 2002).

[7] See id.

[8] Jefferson Robins, Tenant Sentenced to 55 Years in Landlady’s Murder, The Wenatchee World, May 15, 2017.

[9] Richard Byrd, Chad Bennett Denied a Mistrial, Columbia Basin Herald, Apr. 12, 2017.

[10] See id.

[11] See Robins, supra n. 7.

[12] See State v. Nickels, 456 P.3d 795 (Wash. 2020).

[13] See id. at 539-40.

[14] See Hopovac v. Dep’t of Corr., 391 P.3d 570 (Wn. App. 2017).

[15] See id.

[16] Ryan Minnerly, Nick Wallace Wallace Announces Candidacy for Judge Seat, Columbia Basin Herald, Mar. 2, 2016.

[17] See Ryan Minnerly, Judicial Candidates Clash on Campaign Ethics Claims, Columbia Basin Herald, May 15, 2016.

[18] Richard Byrd, Judge Candidates Superior Court Candidates Speak to Packed Room, Columbia Basin Herald, May 19, 2016 (quoting Nick Wallace).

[19] See id.

[20] Richard Byrd, Grant GOP Holds Lincoln Day Dinner/Fundraiser, Columbia Basin Herald, Feb. 12, 2018.

11 Comments

  1. There is absolutely zero reason why a conservative Republican should be selected in a blue state like Washington. If I wanted picks like this I would have voted for Trump.
    What a shitty selection.

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  2. This is exactly the kind of nominees we should not be getting from a Democrat president in a state with two Democrat senators when Democrats are in the majority. I don’t care what commission you have in place, I would absolutely refuse to send this type of nominee to the president for consideration. I am sure David Estudillo is a man of integrity & a great judge so I am perfectly fine with any state judgeship but I think these are the type of nominees we should stay away from for lifetime federal judicial appointments. I understand he was an immigration lawyer so I am hoping there is something I am missing with this nominee.

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  3. I completely agree with Shawn. There is absolutely no reason for a Republican or conservative to be nominated for a lifetime federal judgeship in a state with two Democrat senators. I am sure David Estudillo is a man of honor & integrity & I am fine with him being a Washington state court judge. However after the last 4 years of President Trump’s judicial nominees, Democrats can’t expect to balance the playing field with nominees like this in Democrat strongholds.

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  4. I think that this nomination is part of a package of nominees. Tania Lin has been nominated for the same court and she’s very far left progressive. Apparently, Estudillo’s nomination is catnip for moderate Senators who are hesitant to vote for Lin. This sort of thing is commoon, every President does it.

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  5. I am still upset at this pick. A nominee that at best, pals around with Republicans from a state with two Democrat senators. J. Michael Diaz should have been renominated since he is a year younger, never received a confirmation vote & is at least not a Republican. Hell ANY of the other nominees that never got a confirmation vote would have been a better pick then this. Beth M. Andrus, even at 10 years older, Kathleen M. O’Sullivan or Tessa M. Gorman would have all been a better choice since apparently they can’t seem to find a liberal or progressive lawyer in the entire North West.

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  6. Pingback: Where We Stand: Assessing Vacancies and Nominations in the Federal Judiciary – The West | The Vetting Room

  7. The senate just confirmed David Estudillo 54-41. So we get a Republican judge to a lifetime appointment in one of the most liberal states in the union with two Democrat senators & all we don’t even get more then 54 votes.

    And even worse he was confirmed first out of the three nominees so he will be chief judge of the Western district over Tan Lin or Lauren J. King once Ricardo S. Martinez term has ended. This is the worst case scenario all around.

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  8. His ABA rating is also not very good.
    The Biden nominations seems to have the following pattern, one of three nominees is always the pick, the liberal hopes to see failing on the floor (Estudillo), one is solid, but doesn’t create much enthusiasm (Lin), and one is creating joy in the liberals hearts (King), so let’s see, who will be nominated for the remaining two vacancies.
    To map the population of the State of Washington, two White candidates could be expected, but from what professional background?

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  9. Pingback: Pennsylvania Member of Congress Tracking Report - 09.26.21

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