Bipartisan commission will vet federal judge candidates

WASHINGTON — Nevada’s Democratic senators unveiled a panel of prestigious names in the state’s legal community to vet candidates for recommendation to the White House as nominees to the federal bench.

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Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen first announced earlier this year their plans to create the first panel in the state’s history to help select candidates for judicial vacancies.

“Nevadans deserve federal judges that are experienced, qualified, independent, and selected through a nonpartisan process,” the two senators said in a statement that accompanied the announcement of northern and southern panels to help pick jurists.

The historic move to create a panel comes as President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Senate have moved aggressively to fill federal appeals court seats with conservative judges while allowing home state lawmakers latitude in helping select candidates for the U.S. District Court bench.

Nevada’s senators were instrumental in recommending candidates that included senior state Judge Jennifer Togliatti, nominated by Trump this week to fill a federal court vacancy in Las Vegas.

Togliatti’s nomination was hailed by both senators.

But the lawmakers were not consulted when Trump nominated Lawrence VanDyke, a former Nevada solicitor general and deputy attorney general under Republican Adam Laxalt, to a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacancy.

Rosen and Cortez Masto called the selection an example of the White House’s “extreme judicial agenda.”

“We are disappointed that the White House has chosen to nominate a candidate with a concerning record of ideological legal work,” Rosen and Cortez Masto said in a statement following VanDyke’s nomination last month.

Bipartisan commission

While the senators called their commission bipartisan, they did not disclose party affiliations of its members. And most of the commissioners appeared to have ties to the Democratic Party or were appointed to previous jobs by Democrats.

A Rosen spokesman said there were Republicans and Democrats on the 10-member panel and noted the emphasis was on nonpartisan decisions to select judges. Some of the panel’s members serve in nonpartisan positions and asked that their affiliations not be made public.

Despite the lopsided partisan appearance, the list includes prestigious names in the state’s law community.

Serving on the commission from Southern Nevada are:

— Barbara Buckley, executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and a former Democratic assemblywoman who served as speaker of the Nevada Assembly.

— W. West Allen, president-elect of the Federal Bar Association.

— John Bailey, managing partner of the Bailey Kennedy law firm.

— Daniel Hamilton, dean of the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law.

— Marisa Rodriguez, an attorney with Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn and Dial, and president of the Latino Bar Association of Las Vegas.

Commissioners in Northern Nevada are:

— Frankie Sue Del Papa, former Democratic Nevada attorney general.

— Zelalem Bogale, deputy general counsel of the Nevada System of Higher Education and former deputy district attorney for Washoe County.

— William Maupin, a retired Nevada Supreme Court chief justice.

— Matthew Sharp, Reno personal injury attorney.

The commission would be the first of its kind in Nevada, but similar to those in Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania that have created panels to reduce politics and cronyism when selecting potential judicial nominees for lifetime roles.

And even though home-state senators have the power to block a presidential nominee for a federal district court, the commission would give the two Senate Democrats more input in selecting candidates for a Republican president to nominate.

The initial announcement got a positive response.

A great idea

“It’s a great idea. A lot of other senators in both parties from other states have done that,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond School of Law professor and founding faculty member of the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV.

The panels work best when they are bipartisan, Tobias said following the announcement. He said the commission would help protect the prerogatives of the people of the state who elected the senators whose duty is advice and consent of judicial nominees by the president.

Although the White House has nominated Togliatti to fill the Las Vegas vacancy, the commission will get its first chance to vet candidates for a second vacancy that occurred when Judge James Mahan in Reno took senior status.

Judge Jay Bybee of Las Vegas, who sits on the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit, announced he will take senior status at the end of this year. Trump bypassed Cortez Masto and Rosen when he nominated VanDyke for that post.

Senate Republican leaders have vowed to continue the tradition of giving home-state senators the right to block of federal judicial candidates in their state through a process known as the “blue slip.”

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., changed a century-old rule earlier this year and allowed circuit court judges to be confirmed even over the objections of home-state senators.

Cortez Masto accused McConnell and the White House of trying to pack the courts with ideological conservative judges.

“Republican leadership, with the support of the White House, don’t believe the Democrats should have any input,” Cortez Masto said then.

She said the commissions are designed to get past the partisanship and get qualified candidates on the bench.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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