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Cortez Masto, Rosen turn to commission for judge picks

WASHINGTON — Nevada’s two Democratic senators are forming a bipartisan commission to vet potential candidates for federal judgeships in Nevada, saying the panel would help them select qualified people to recommend to the White House for appointment.

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

“We are looking for the best qualified candidates who will respect precedent,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Nevada’s senior senator and a former Nevada attorney general.

Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., said they are selecting 10 members, five from Northern Nevada and five from Southern Nevada, to vet candidates for federal district judges and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The commission currently is being formed and the members selected will be announced later. The senators said the members would be a diverse group to ensure the voice of Nevada is heard when promoting candidates to sit on a federal bench.

“We have two distinct metropolitan areas in the state and we wanted to make sure that both were equally represented” along with rural areas, Rosen said.

The bipartisan panels will be made up of people in the legal community who will review applications and interview prospective candidates for openings.

“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, and help protect the prerogatives of the people of the state who elected the senators, who are charged with giving advice and consent over judicial nominees to the president.

Announcement of the panels comes as Nevada faces two federal district judge vacancies, one considered an emergency, and crowded dockets.

The first vacancy in Nevada came open in 2016 when Judge Robert Clive Jones took senior status. Obama nominated Anne Rachel Traum, a UNLV law professor to fill the vacancy. But that nomination was blocked by then-Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. The seat remains open.

The second Nevada vacancy occurred in June 2018, when Judge James Mahan took senior status. Senior judges are considered semi-retired, and may opt to work a reduce caseload.

Judge Jay Bybee of Las Vegas, who sits on the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit, has announced he will take senior status at the end of this year.

Senate Republican leaders have vowed to continue the tradition of giving home-state senators the right to block district court judges in their state through a process known as the “blue slip.” Both senators must sign the blue slip in order for the nomination to proceed to a hearing, and ultimately a vote.

However, Senate Republicans have broken with tradition and approved appellate court judges in cases where both home-state senators haven’t signed the blue slip.

Cortez Masto accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the White House of trying to pack the courts with ideologically conservative judges.

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

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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