Stephen Hasner | Georgia Law | May 19, 2022
The frightening truth is that an inexperienced person could become a federal judge in the United States. Our Constitution does not provide specific requirements for serving as a federal judge. However, since most federal judgeships are lifetime appointments, the prospect of learning on the job is entirely possible.
Federal judgeships include:
- Justices of the United States Supreme Court
- Bankruptcy judges
- Justices on the Court of Appeals
- Federal Magistrate Judges
- District Court Judges
Most federal judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate. Informal criteria have been established for federal judges, but some administrations appoint judges that do not meet the informal criteria. As we have seen in the recent past, several people have been nominated and appointed to the federal bench who have little to no courtroom experience.
How Are Federal Judges Appointed in the United States?
The President nominates a person for a specific federal judgeship. The Present can choose anyone they want to fill the position. However, political parties play a role in the appointment process, as members of Congress often submit lists of names they wish to see appointed as federal judges.
There is no legal requirement that an appointee meets specific requirements to serve as a federal judge. For example, the person does not need legal experience or a law degree. However, the nominee must be approved by the United States Senate.
Confirmation hearings for the United States Supreme Court justices are newsworthy. The hearings are broadcast, and many people follow the hearings carefully. Confirmation hearings for other federal judges do not generally become newsworthy.
Part of the confirmation process is a background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Department of Justice. Also, the American Bar Association rates nominees for federal judgeships based on their:
- Other relevant factors
In the past, the ABA opinion of a nominee’s fitness to serve as a federal judge has been given significant weight during confirmation hearings. That is not the case today; Senators have voted in favor of appointees that the ABA found “not qualified” to serve as a federal judge.
Senators question the nominee during hearings. The questions have traditionally centered around the person’s legal experience and fitness to serve as a federal judge.
Questions by Senators often include information related to the candidate’s:
- Experience and legal background
- Previous judicial opinions, if the person is a lower court judge
- Documents, articles, and papers the person has authored and/or published
- Opinions regarding landmark rulings and historical court cases
- Views on issues that are of public interest, such as discrimination, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, gun rights, and abortion
In recent years, Senators have questioned the person’s character and events in their life. For example, some Senators called into question events that happened when the person was in college.
Traditionally, most federal judges have been appointed with support by members of both parties because they are highly qualified, but federal judges have recently been appointed along party lines.
Have Inexperienced People Been Named as Federal Judges in Our Country’s History?
There are several examples of inexperienced people being named to federal judgeships in our country’s history. A famous example is Chief Justice John Marshall.
Chief Justice Marshall served on the United States Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. He was instrumental in deciding the case of Marbury v. Madison, which shaped our judicial system. However, Chief Justice Marshall studied law for just six weeks before serving as a Supreme Court Justice.
Other highly respected and influential Supreme Court Justices who served with no prior judicial experience include William Rehnquist, Earl Warren, and Louis Brandeis.
Does Lack of Experience Have an Impact on Court Decisions?
Over a judge’s tenure, they can significantly impact court decisions. Federal judges serve lifetime appointments except for Federal Magistrate Judges and Bankruptcy Court Judges. They can contribute to shaping our judicial system and case law through judicial precedents.
Federal judges may hear cases related to negligence claims for wrongful death claims, premises liability, car accidents, and other personal injuries.
Federal judges may decide strict liability cases in defective product cases and abnormally dangerous activities. In addition, they may hear cases related to the value of damages, caps on the amount of damages, and when punitive damages can be awarded.
State courts decide most personal injury cases. Each state enacts specific laws related to tort claims. Some of those cases work their way through the appeals process to the United States Supreme Court.
Fortunately, most people appointed to the federal bench are highly qualified individuals with a legal background and court experience.
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