The new year has brought a flurry of activity in portions of Minnesota’s political and legal community. One of Minnesota’s seven federal district court judgeships — ably occupied for the past 21 years by Chief Judge Michael J. Davis — will become vacant in August as he assumes senior judge status, he announced on Dec. 29.
Fortunately, that does not mean that Davis, 67, will cease to be a working judge. He will step down as chief judge on July 1 and as a district judge in August, but he plans to follow the example of Minnesota’s four other senior federal judges and continue to carry a heavy caseload, befitting one of the busiest districts in the country.
But Davis’ move triggers the start of a judicial selection process in Washington, D.C., and it has cued a waiting chorus of pleas to fill his seat with a person of color — and particularly a woman of color. Davis is the only African-American ever to have served on the Minnesota federal court. The district’s seven judges now include three women, all of them white.
The Infinity Project, an advocacy group for women in the judiciary that helped propel the second female judge in history onto the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013, has swung into high gear. It has forged an alliance with a number of organizations working for diversity in the legal profession — the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association, the Minnesota Black Women Lawyers Network, the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association. Their goal, said Infinity executive director Debra Fitzpatrick, is twofold: to “encourage interest in the federal bench among women, minorities and, particularly, women of color,” and to make sure that President Obama and the state’s two U.S. senators are well aware that the desire for diversity on the federal bench is strong in this state. Davis himself has contributed to that effort (see accompanying text).
Those advocates are having a busy week. Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, who will recommend a slate of prospective judges to President Obama, have established a seven-member panel of distinguished members of the Minnesota bar to review applications — and have asked that applications be submitted no later than the end of business on Friday.
The panel’s co-chairs — former U.S. attorney Tom Heffelfinger and Briggs and Morgan partner R. Ann Huntrods — stressed to the Star Tribune Editorial Board this week that they are conducting an open process. Anyone is free to apply; an application need consist of nothing more than a letter of interest and a résumé.
The advisory panel’s review will be only the start of what has become in too many cases a slow, arduous and politically charged appointment process. An applicant who passes muster with the panel must still win the favor of the two senators themselves, receive Obama’s nod and then survive a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate, now controlled by Republicans. Politically motivated delays have become all too commonplace in recent years, to the detriment of smooth-running courts. They could become more prolonged with the White House and the Senate majority now at political odds.
This newspaper is rooting for the appointment of a highly qualified candidate who carries little, if any, partisan baggage, and for a fair and expeditious confirmation process. And, like the Infinity Project, we’d welcome an appointment that adds to the diversity of this state’s federal court.
Public trust in the judiciary is crucial to sustaining the rule of law in a democracy. That trust is enhanced when the law is upheld by judges who represent the entire population and who bring a wide range of backgrounds to bear on their analyses. Minnesota’s population has become substantially more racially diverse during Davis’ tenure. This state’s federal bench ought to reflect that change.