A Republican-backed committee will recommend candidates for two vacant federal judgeships in Minnesota, effectively replacing one formed by Democrats already in the process of vetting prospective nominees.
U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., made the announcement Tuesday, a month after a separate committee formed by U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, D-Minn., closed the application process — less than two weeks after Donald Trump was elected president.
The new committee — which will be led by former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz and Bert McKasy, a former state representative and commerce department commissioner — will first meet sometime in January to begin reviewing applications to recommend to Trump.
The outcome of the presidential election added new uncertainty to fill two positions vacated by Judges Donovan Frank and Ann Montgomery's decisions to assume senior status.
"This committee is made up of some of Minnesota's brightest legal minds, with an extremely diverse breadth of professional experience," Paulsen said in a statement Tuesday. "I have full confidence in their ability to identify the most-qualified individuals to apply the law in a fair manner, and to ensure equal treatment under the law to all Minnesotans. I look forward to reviewing the committee's work and recommending candidates to the President-elect who will serve Minnesota faithfully."
In late-October, the senators introduced a committee led by former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger and private attorney Ann Huntrods that had planned to send recommendations to the Trump transition team before his inauguration.
Paulsen indicated Tuesday that the new search group would work with the two senators and "build upon their committee's efforts as well."
In a phone interview Tuesday, Klobuchar said she and Franken agreed to forward names reviewed by their committee to Paulsen and U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., after the Nov. 21 deadline for applications passed. Klobuchar said candidates included judges appointed by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"I think the real interest here is to get these vacancies filled by qualified people," Klobuchar said. "Our interest in Minnesota for both Republicans and Democrats should be getting the best people we can get on the bench. … Somehow I'm hopeful this will work. [Emmer and Paulsen are] going to be called on by the administration to give their recommendations. I think it is helpful to get as many names and input as possible."
The Constitution states that the president must nominate candidates for federal judgeships, who then must be confirmed by the Senate. But the selection process has typically been governed by custom. When a state's senators are from a party opposite of the president's, other senior state officials from the president's party may enter the fold.
"I formed this committee because I take my role as the senior Republican member of the Minnesota congressional delegation seriously and want to make sure whoever is nominated is best suited to serve Minnesotans," Paulsen said Tuesday.
Backlog of complex cases
The Judicial Conference considers Minnesota's two vacancies as being among the nation's 38 "judicial emergencies" because the district has a caseload in excess of 600 "weighted filings" — a figure that reflects how long different cases take to resolve — per judgeship. Minnesota's last federal vacancy was filled by the January confirmation of Wilhelmina Wright, who was also selected by a committee formed by Klobuchar and Franken. Wright's confirmation after 171 days of vacancy was the second-fastest among the 22 confirmations since November 2015.
But the process to fill two federal judgeships in Minnesota will likely take a back seat to what could be a contentious Supreme Court confirmation process extending well into spring. The nation's federal district and circuit courts meanwhile have 107 total vacancies — one of which has sat vacant nearly 11 years — and 59 pending nominations as of Tuesday.