Hanna: Vermont’s next federal judge

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(HOST) Commentator Cheryl Hanna, a professor of Law at Vermont Law School, has been thinking about what kind of lawyer should serve as Vermont’s next federal judge.

(HANNA) For most lawyers, being appointed to the federal bench is like crossing over the River Jordan into the Promised Land. Federal judges get lifetime tenure, a generous pension, and, most importantly, the power to decide interesting and important cases. It’s a fantastic job, and soon one lucky lawyer will have it.

Last week, District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha announced his retirement, leaving open one of two very sought-after seats on the federal bench in Vermont. As our senior Senator, Patrick Leahy has the responsibility of nominating a candidate to President Obama. The Senator is appointing a commission to make recommendations.

So, here’s my unsolicited advice about the kind of person who should be appointed.

First, federal officers should better reflect the population of Vermont. Currently, Judge William Sessions and Federal Magistrate John Conroy, plus the federal defender and Leahy’s nominee for U.S. Attorney General, as well as our entire federal delegation, while all excellent men, are, alas, all men.

I strongly urge Senator Leahy to seriously consider a woman for this appointment.

There are many qualified women lawyers in Vermont. But woman often don’t put themselves forward for high profile appointments. So I hope that recruiting one of Vermont’s best and brightest women will be a top priority.

And no, just in case you’re wondering, I’m not interested myself; but I can think of a number of outstanding women candidates who might be.

Second, we need a judge who’s intellectually competent and has a rich appreciation for our Constitutional traditions. President Obama said numerous times during the campaign that he intended to appoint judges who understand how law affects real people.

To find a person who can wade through complicated legal doctrine and keep it real, we have to look at lawyers from a variety of backgrounds and not assume that there is only one "correct," and often elitist, path to the federal bench.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, I hope our next federal judge is a true public intellectual.

By that I mean someone who actively engages in the life of the law – by writing books and journal articles, by speaking to diverse audiences, and by weighing in on important issues, as long as no conflict exists. In the last twenty years, we have seen judges retreat to private life. This is particularly true at the state level, where fears of reappointment have made many judges afraid to say anything publicly. But with lifetime tenure, federal judges are in a unique position to shape the way the public understands the rule of law.

Ideologically conservative judges, such as Justice Scalia and Judge Posner of the 7th Circuit, have been very successful in this kind of public engagement. I’d love to see President Obama’s appointees similarly engaged, offering alternative voices in the intellectual debates of our day.

I have great confidence that Senator Leahy will "…hit this one out of the ballpark" – that’s a phrase often associated with judicial appointments.

And to all of you lawyers out there, dust off your resumes, and keep your fingers crossed!

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