Judge Jennifer L. Thurston – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California

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.

Background

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.

Legal Experience

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).

Jurisprudence

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.

Writings

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.

Overall Assessment

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.

Judge James Arguelles – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California

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.  As such, judges on the court are expected to take senior status immediately upon eligibility to bring in reinforcements.  The court currently has two such vacancies, with commercial lawyer Dirk Paloutzian nominated to one seat, and Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Arguelles nominated for the other.

Background

The 54-year-old Arguelles has a long history with the military, having received his B.Sc. from the United States Naval Academy and a Master of Strategic Studies from the United States Army War College before he received a J.D. in 1996 from Harvard Law School.  He then clerked for Judge Marilyn Huff on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California for a year, before joining Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher as an Associate.[1]

In 2000, Arguelles became a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.[2]  In 2005, Arguelles joined Stevens, O’Connell & Jacobs as a Partner.  He held that post until he was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to be a Superior Court judge in 2010.[3]

History of the Seat

Arguelles 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.  Arguelles’s nomination was announced on June 8, 2020, although he was not officially nominated until June 18, 2020.

Legal Experience

Arguelles started his legal career at the firm of Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher, before spending five years as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.  As a prosecutor, Arguelles worked on a variety of criminal matters, with a focus on white collar and fraud cases.  For example, Arguelles prosecuted Wayne Anderson and Richard Marks for money laundering as part of their firm Anderson Ark & Associates.[4]  Arguelles also prosecuted Sacramento Water District Manager Dewight Kramer on charges of defrauding the U.S. government through, among other activities, destroying county water records.[5]

From 2005 to 2010, Arguelles was a Partner at Stevens, O’Connell & Jacobs.  Among the more notable cases he has handled with the firm, Arguelles represented Whirlpool Corporation in defending against a class action suit alleging excessive heat and damage from the self-cleaning system in Whirlpool Appliances.[6]  Arguelles was able to successfully have the suit dismissed for failure to state a claim.[7]

Jurisprudence

Since 2010, Arguelles has served as a judge on the Sacramento Superior Court.  In this role, he presides over trial court matters in criminal, civil, family, and other state law matters.  In his time on the bench, Arguelles has handled a number of high profile cases.  For example, Arguelles ordered the life sentence of Zavion Johnson set aside after new evidence cast doubt on the testimony from Johnson’s initial trial showing that his baby daughter died from “shaken baby” syndrome.[9] 

More recently, Arguelles oversaw the pretrial release hearing of Raymond John Garcia, who was arrested for “looting” in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests in the Sacramento area.[10]  The D.A. opposed Garcia’s release, arguing that Garcia represented a threat as he was on parole from an attempted murder conviction.[11]  However, Arguelles granted the pretrial release, noting the many letters of community support offered for Garcia.[12]

Overall Assessment

As a Republican judge in an increasingly Democratic state, Arguelles’ career advancement largely depends upon federal appointment.  Arguelles’ nomination probably means that California’s Democratic senators have, at least preliminarily, signed off on the nomination.  His path to confirmation depends on his ability to keep their support.


[1] Press Release, Office of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gov. Schwarzenegger Appoints James Arguelles to Sacramento County Superior Court, Oct. 18, 2010 (available at Targeted News Service).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] See Denny Walsh, Two Californians Guilty of Money Laundering, Sacramento Bee, June 1, 2002.

[5] David Richie, Two Former Sacramento, Calif., Water Officials Face Fraud, Tax Charges, Sacramento Bee, Oct. 10, 2003.

[6] See Saaremets v. Whirlpool Corp., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 261 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 18, 2010).

[7] See id. at *26.

[8] See id.

[9] See Don Thompson, California Shaken Baby Conviction Set Aside After 15 Years, A.P., Dec. 8, 2017.

[10] See Anna Okada, Alleged Looter During Sacramento Police Brutality Protests Wins Pretrial Release After Outpouring of Community Support, Davis Vanguard, June 15, 2020, https://www.davisvanguard.org/2020/06/alleged-looter-during-sacramento-police-brutality-protests-wins-pretrial-release-after-outpouring-of-community-support/.  

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

Dirk Paloutzian – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California

The Eastern District of California is known for being 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.  As such, the nomination of Dirk Paloutzian, a business attorney from Fresno, is likely to be welcome news for the judges on the court.

Background

Dirk Paloutzian was born in Fresno County, California on April 6, 1969.  Paloutzian attended the University of California at Berkeley, getting a B.A. in 1991.[1]  He then received a J.D. from the University of California Davis King Hall School of Law in 1994.[2]

Paloutzian served as an extern for Justice Marvin Baxter on the California Supreme Court and then became a Deputy District Attorney for the County of Fresno.[3]  In2 002, Paloutzian joined Baker Manock & Jensen in Fresno, where he currently serves as a Partner.

History of the Seat

Paloutzian has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, to a seat vacated on December 17, 2019 by Judge Morrison England.  Paloutzian’s nomination was announced on April 29, 2020, although he was not officially nominated until May 21, 2020.

Legal Experience

Paloutzian started his legal career at the firm of McCormick Barstow LLP, before spending five years as a prosecutor with the County of Fresno.  As a prosecutor, Paloutzian worked on a variety of criminal matters, including sexual assault, homicide and gang prosecutions.[4]  In 2000, Paloutzian became the county’s first elder abuse prosecutor, where he focused solely on prosecuting elder abuse cases.[5] 

Since 2002, Paloutzian has been handling business and commercial litigation at Baker Manock & Jensen in Fresno.  Among the more notable cases he has handled with the firm, Paloutzian represented dairy farms in Hawaii being sued for violations of federal water pollution laws.[6]  Paloutzian also represented psychiatrist Dwight Sievert, who was sued for damages after releasing Edward Coburn from psychiatric detention (Coburn went on to have a violent outburst directed at his father on an airplane).[7]  After a trial court judge found that Sievert was immune from damages in the suit, a panel of the court of appeals affirmed.[8]

Overall Assessment

With a Republican controlled Senate, Paloutzian’s biggest obstacle to confirmation (other than the election clock) is the return of blue slips by California’s Democratic senators.  As Paloutzian is a relatively uncontroversial nominee, it is likely that he will not be opposed by the senators.  Whether the Senate chooses to take up the nomination in the short calendar left is another story.


[1] See Baker, Manock & Jensen P.C., Dirk B. Paloutzian, https://www.bakermanock.com/attorney/dirk-b-paloutzian (last visited Jun. 3, 2020).

[2] See id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] See id.

[6] Friends of Maha’Ulepu, Inc. v. Hawai’i Dairy Farms, LLC., 224 F. Supp. 3d 1094 (D. Haw. 2016).

[7] See Coburn v. Sievert, 133 Cal. App. 4th 1483 (2005).

[8] See id.