The U.S. Senate voted Monday to approve the nomination of San Francisco lawyer Michelle Friedland to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. With Friedland's confirmation on a 51-40 vote, the highest federal court to serve California will be fully staffed for the first time in decades.
Friedland is a Stanford Law School grad who works with Munger, Tolles & Olson. Her expertise is in antitrust and higher education litigation, but she also worked pro bono on the legal challenge to California's anti-gay marriage measure Proposition 8.
University of Richmond Law School professor Carl Tobias calls Friedland "extremely well qualified" — so much so that retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor showed up at her confirmation hearing. Friedland clerked for the nation's first female justice when she was on the high court.
It's been a long time since the nation's busiest appeals court has been fully staffed. How long? Tobias says “maybe as far back as the Reagan administration.” At times, as many as a third of the seats were vacant due to partisan battles between the White House and the Senate. Tobias says the 9th became one of the slowest appeals courts in the country, with a case load that overwhelmed the judges.
Tobias says the only thing that helped was the large number of "senior judges" on hand. Federal appellate judges who reach the age of 65 with at least 15 years service on the bench can take senior status, meaning a lighter case load with a full salary. Tobias says several judges continued to serve well into their 80s and even 90s. But the number of senior judges is shrinking.
A fully staffed 9th Circuit doesn't mean Washington will change its opinion of the court. For years, the 9th had the reputation for the most reversals by the U.S. Supreme Court. Back in the mid-1990s, 27 of its 28 decisions were either reversed or vacated by the high court. No longer: the midwest 6th Circuit now holds the title of most reversed.
Nonetheless, the 9th is likely to remain a political football. In the last presidential race, Republican candidate Rick Santorum suggested that 9th Circuit judges be banished to Guam.