We are in the August recess, a little more than six months into the Biden Presidency. When President Biden came to office on January 20, 2021, there were 52 current and future vacancies in the federal judiciary. Since that time, an additional 73 vacancies have opened and nine nominees have been confirmed, leaving 116 vacancies pending (including future vacancies). There are currently 26 more judicial nominees pending, meaning that 22% of vacancies have nominees. In comparison, by the August recess of 2017, President Trump had nominees pending for around 20% of vacancies. Given the lull during the recess, now is a good time to look at the landscape of federal judicial nominations: vacancies open; nominations pending; prospective openings. This week, we focus on the South.
Court of Appeals
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is arguably the most conservative court of appeals in the country. Many of the conservative legal movement’s most outspoken jurists, from Judge Edith Jones to Judge James Ho, sit on this court. The Fifth Circuit includes six nominees appointed by President Trump, four appointed by President Bush, three by President Obama, and two each by Presidents Reagan and Clinton. Of the judges, six are currently eligible for senior status: Reagan appointees Jones and Jerry Smith, Clinton appointees Carl Stewart and James Dennis, and Bush appointees Priscilla Owen and Leslie Southwick. Of the six, only Dennis, the Fifth Circuit’s oldest active judge and one of the few liberal voices on the court, has announced a move to senior status. So far, no nominee has been announced to replace Dennis.
The other judges on the court, with the exception of Stewart and potentially Southwick, are unlikely to take senior status anytime soon. Another of the court’s liberals, Judge James Graves of Mississippi, hits eligibility for senior status next year and may take so at that time.
Louisiana has three judicial districts: the Eastern; Middle; and Western. The twenty-two active judgeships across the three courts are all currently filled, although one will open on the Western District when Judge Elizabeth Erny Foote takes senior status in January 2022. No nominee has been put forward to replace Foote and Biden may seek to work with Louisiana Senators with a package of nominees to include U.S. Attorney picks and Dennis’ replacement.
Additional vacancies are likely, particularly on the Eastern District. Of the twelve active judges on the Eastern District, six are currently eligible for senior status: Martin Feldman, Sarah Vance, Eldon Fallon, Carl Barbier, Jay Zainey, and Lance Africk. Of the six, Feldman and Fallon, who are both over eighty, are judges to watch. Additionally, Chief Judge Maurice Hicks on the Western District, who will have to step down as Chief next year, is another possibility for senior status.
While Mississippi currently has no judicial vacancies, additional retirements are possible. Out of the nine active judges in Mississippi, three are eligible for senior status: Judges Michael Mills and Sharion Aycock on the Northern District; and Judge Henry Wingate on the Southern District. While no other judge reaches eligibility before 2028, Judge Carlton Reeves for the Southern District may be considered for elevation if either Southwick or Graves moves to senior status on the Fifth Circuit.
Texas’ four judicial districts entered the Trump Administration with eleven judicial vacancies, and, as a result of a flood of new confirmations, are almost entirely full. There is only one current judicial vacancy in Texas: on the Western District from the death of Judge Philip Martinez. Additionally, one future vacancy is expected next year when Judge Vanessa Gilmore moves to senior status in the Southern District. So far, there has not been any public movement in Texas towards recommendations to fill the vacancies.
Additional vacancies are likely as a number of judges are eligible for senior status. Currently, the possibilities include: Marcia Crone on the Eastern District; Sam Lindsay, Barbara Lynn, James Kinkeade and Jane Boyle on the Northern District; Lee Rosenthal, Ricardo Hinojosa, Lynn Hughes, Keith Ellison, and Andrew Crane on the Southern District; and Orlando Luis Garcia, Samuel Biery, Earl Yeakel, Kathleen Cardone, and Frank Montalvo on the Western District. Furthermore, next year, Judge David Godbey on the Northern District will reach eligibility for senior status.
Court of Appeals
The Atlanta based Eleventh Circuit, despite a more equitable party division, has a reputation almost as conservative as its neighbor to the West. An influx of Trump and Obama appointees (75% of the court has served less than ten years) leaves few judges who are eligible for senior status. One of the two judges who are, Judge Beverly Martin, is retiring in September. So far, there has been no nominee to replace Martin, who is one of the court’s few liberals. Judge Charles Wilson, the other judge eligible for senior status, is another liberal, ensuring that the conservative tilt of the court is unlikely to change anytime soon.
All the states under the Eleventh Circuit are divided into a Northern, Middle, and Southern District. In Alabama’s case, the three courts together have fourteen judgeships: eight Trump appointees; three Bush appointees; two Obama appointees; and one vacancy. The lone vacancy is on the Middle District, vacated by Judge Andrew Brasher’s elevation to the Eleventh Circuit. Trump nominated Solicitor General Edmund LaCour to fill this seat, but LaCour was blocked by Sen. Doug Jones, and the vacancy is still pending. So far, there has been no nominee to fill this vacancy.
Additional vacancies are unlikely as no judge is eligible for senior status until Judge Scott Coogler reaches it in 2024.
Between the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Florida, there are thirty seven judgeships, and two vacancies. The two currently pending vacancies are both on the Southern District of Florida. As Florida has two Republican Senators, Sen. Marcio Rubio and Florida’s Democratic House Delegation set up rival nominations commissions for the vacancies. Rubio recommended attorneys David Leibowitz and Detra Shaw-Wilder to fill the vacancies in July. The Democratic JNC also recommended Shaw-Wilder alongside state court Judges Samantha Feuer, Ayana Harris, and Miguel De La O, federal magistrate Shaniek Maynard, and federal public defender Michael Caruso. Having been recommended by both committees, it is likely that Shaw-Wilder will be nominated. However, it is unclear who the second nominee will be.
Additional vacancies are possible. Out of the thirty five active judges serving, seven are currently eligible for senior status: H.W. Bush appointees Steven Merryday and Michael Moore, Clinton appointees William Dimitrouleas and Donald Middlebrooks; and Bush appointees Timothy Corrigan, Marcia Cooke, and Jose Martinez.
The Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Georgia have a total of eighteen judgeships: six appointees each of Presidents Obama and Trump; and four appointees of President Bush. There are also two vacancies on the Northern District of Georgia. Georgia Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff began soliciting nominees for the vacancies early this year, with an application deadline of March 17, 2021. While no names have become public, it is likely that recommendations have already made their way to the White House. Additional vacancies are unlikely before 2023, unless Judge Leslie Abrams is tapped for the Eleventh Circuit to replace Martin.