The clock is running out on two federal judge candidates — one from Fresno and the other from Sacramento — to fill seats on the depleted Eastern District of California bench.
President Donald Trump nominated Fresno attorney Dirk Paloutizian and Sacramento Judge James Arguelles to serve on the court earlier this year, but the Senate Commission on the Judiciary has not scheduled hearings for either.
Paloutzian, a former deputy district attorney now working with the firm of Baker, Manock and Jensen, was nominated in April. Arguelles is a Sacramento County judge nominated in June.
They were picked to replace senior federal judges Morrison England Jr. and Lawrence O’Neill respectively. Both current federal judges have taken a reduced workload, but are not technically retired. O’Neill is not hearing any cases.
The Eastern District stretches from the Oregon border through Kern County, with main courthouses in Fresno and Sacramento. It has been called one of the most overworked and underserved courts in the nation.
But O’Neill expressed doubt, absent a deal between Republicans and Democrats, that either man will be confirmed.
“This isn’t a logical issue. This is a political one,” O’Neill said.
Another retired federal judge also thinks it is about politics.
“Obviously, there is a significant dispute between the Democrats and the Republicans relative to the presidential election, and so that is, I think, causing more disputes, more, if you will, of failure to cooperate,” retired Judge Oliver Wanger — now a Fresno attorney in private practice — said.
Nominations Expire at End of Term
The 116th Congress ends on Jan. 3, and with it, all pending nominations to the federal bench.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear five judicial nominations at Wednesday hearing, but still not the two Eastern District candidates.
According to the U.S. Courts, there are 64 vacancies nationwide, with 39 pending nominations, including the two from California.
Trump has nominated more than 250 judges — including three at the Supreme Court level — with more than 220 confirmed. All are lifetime appointments.
It is possible that either Paloutzian or Arguelles could be re-nominated by presumptive President-elect Joe Biden. The control of the senate will be decided by two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.
“Blue Slip” Tradition
The Senate practices a tradition of “blue slips,” meaning that both home state senators need to consent to the nominees before they move forward.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), chair of the judiciary committee, has practiced honoring blue slips for district-level judges such as Paloutzian and Arguelles.
A spokesperson for Sen. Dianne Feinstein would not confirm whether she issued blue slips for either California nominee.
“Senator Feinstein doesn’t comment on blue slips until their hearing,” a spokesperson said.
Senator Kamala Harris’ office did not reply to a request for comment from GV Wire℠.
Both senators serve on the judiciary committee.
Feinstein: No Lame Duck Hearings
Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, has publicly asked Graham to stop scheduling nomination hearings during the senate’s lame-duck session.
“Although processing judicial nominations is one of the Committee’s principal responsibilities, the Committee’s long and established tradition in presidential election years is to halt consideration of judicial nominees after Election Day,” Feinstein wrote.
There is no indication that Graham will follow Feinstein’s wishes.
O’Neill doesn’t see this happening.
“I don’t know why Senator Graham would abide by that. There is still time to to confirm nominees,” O’Neill said.
‘Noncontroversial’ Picks for Busiest Court
O’Neill has long championed more judges in the Eastern District through federal legislation, and to fill those seats when they become vacant.
“There is no issue there for either one of them that would make them controversial or make them the type of nominee that somebody was willing to go to fight against,” O’Neill said. “Coupled with the extreme need in the Eastern District of California, makes one from a logical standpoint say, get the job done so that we can have the judicial help to serve the public.”
Wanger agrees that neither nominee is controversial for what he calls the nation’s busiest court.
“Especially Arguelles. He’s a Harvard Law graduate. He’s a former military. He has impeccable, if you will, credentials and Paloutzian … he’s a local Republican, nowhere near the background that Arguelles has. And so the bottom line is that he’s totally noncontroversial because I don’t think he’s that well known,” Wanger said.
Looking toward the next congress, O’Neill said agreements across the aisle need to be made.
“If the Republicans hang on to the Senate, there is going to have to be bipartisan agreement on some things, otherwise nothing will get done,” O’Neill said. “You can never count on any bipartisan deal occurring. You can only hope for it.”