The Eastern District of California is one of the most heavily overworked courts in the country. The Court has not been expanded in decades, even as caseloads explode, and has relied heavily on senior judges to carry the burden. With the court scheduled to be down to half its judgeships next year, President Biden has nominated Chief Magistrate Judge Jennifer Thurston to the Court.
Thurston received her B.Sc. from California State University in 1989 and her J.D. in 1997 from the California Pacific School of Law. She then joined the Office of the County Counsel in Kern County.
In 2009, Thurston was appointed to be a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of California, where she currently serves as Chief Magistrate.
History of the Seat
Thurston has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, to a seat vacated on February 2, 2020 by Judge Lawrence O’Neill. On June 18, 2020, the Trump Administration nominated Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Arguelles to replace O’Neill, but Arguelles was not confirmed before the end of the 116th Congress.
Thurston spent her entire career before becoming a judge at the Office of the Kern County Counsel in Bakersfield. In this role, Thurston litigated child dependency proceedings, which sought to limit or terminate parental rights in cases of child abuse and neglect. See, e.g., In re Baby Boy H., 63 Cal. App. 4th 470 (1998). For example, Thurston represented the County on appeal challenging a trial judge’s ruling that step-siblings and other “legal” sibling relationships do not fall under the definition of siblings under California reunification law. See In re Tanyann W., 97 Cal. App. 4th 675 (2002). The California Court of Appeals, however, disagreed, finding that the term “sibling” should be given its ordinary meaning, referring to children with parents in common. See id. at 677.
In other matters, Thurston defended the County against a class action suit alleging that the Kern County Sheriff’s Department conducted strip and body cavity searches of prisoners. See Lopez v. Youngblood, 609 F. Supp. 2d 1125 (E.D. Cal. 2009).
Since 2009, Thurston has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge. In this role, she presides by consent over civil matters and misdemeanors, assists district judges with discovery and settlement, and writes reports and recommendations on legal issues. Among the matters she handled on the bench, Thurston reversed an ALJ determination that a man with a seizure disorder and degenerative disc disease not disabled by law. See Terrezas v. Astrue, 726 F. Supp. 2d 1139 (E.D. Cal. 2010).
In other matters, Thurston granted a motion for summary adjudication in favor of an insurance company arguing that it had no duty to defend an employer from a state court suit brought by an employee who was impaled by a gate during his work. See Imperium Ins. Co. v. Unigard Ins. Co., 16 F. Supp. 3d 1 (E.D. Cal. 2014).
As with most district and magistrate judges, Thurston has had reversals of her decisions. One notable reversal was from her grant of summary judgment in favor of Kern County against a lawsuit by a prisoner alleging inappropriate conduct and sexual harassment from a corrections officer. See Vazquez v. City of Kern, 949 F.3d 1153 (9th Cir. 2020). In reversing, the Ninth Circuit found that the alleged conduct arose to the level of a Constitutional violation and that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity. Id. at 1160.
In 2019, Thurston authored a law review article discussing the lack of diversity among the federal magistrate bench. See Jennifer L. Thurston, Black Robes, White Judges: The Lack of Diversity On the Magistrate Judge Bench, 82 Law & Contemp. Prob. 63 (2019). In the article, Thurston discusses the composition of magistrate judges across the country as well as the value of diversity on the bench, noting:
“…diversity does not assure fairness any more than a lack of diversity assures unfairness. The color of the judge’s skin, whether the judge grew up in poverty, sleeps with a person of the same gender, has a strong political identity, or regularly attends church, does not ensure that the judge will rule in favor of a litigant who has a similar background. To suggest otherwise sorely ignores judges’ commitment to the dictates of the law.” Id. at 70.
She goes on, however, to note that the differing perspectives offered by diversity can nonetheless cause an impact, noting studies indicating that the presence of female judges in cases involving sexual harassment do lead to more favorable outcomes for plaintiffs. See id. at 71. Thurston also notes that diversity is important in the sense that it lends “credibility” to the courts and affects the perception of the bench by those who appear before it. See id. at 72.
Having an uncontroversial background and extensive experience as a magistrate judge, Thurston should be a relatively mainstream choice for the federal bench. However, having written on diversity in the federal bench, some may attempt to equate Thurston’s writings to Justice Sotomayor’s then-maligned “wise Latina” comments, and suggest that she is arguing that minority judges rule differently or better than their white counterparts (although such a conclusion is hard to draw from reading the full context of her writing). However, the impact of such arguments is likely to be limited and Thurston is likely to be confirmed by the end of the year.