A federal judgeship just opened up in New Orleans, and the political jockeying is underway for a nominee to fill it.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle on June 29 filed for “senior status,” a kind of semiretirement that will free up his seat and launch the politically charged judicial nominating process.
But with a GOP-led U.S. Senate tightening the spigot on judicial picks, and both of Louisiana’s U.S. senators now in the Republican camp, filling Lemelle’s seat before next year’s presidential election may be a long shot.
Lemelle, a Clinton nominee who assumed the district court bench in 1998 after more than a decade as a federal magistrate, filed for senior status on his 65th birthday, the first day he was eligible.
His seat is now among 50 open federal judgeships in the country with no pending nominees. Whoever fills it will be the first new judge at the Camp Street courthouse since District Judge Susie Morgan received her commission in March 2012.
Morgan’s nomination came with then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, as the state’s senior senator, a crucial role in the approval process for a lifetime federal judgeship.
Now, that honor is held by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the Republican gubernatorial front-runner and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy also will weigh in as one of the home state senators who traditionally guide judicial nominations.
How it all plays out may depend on the nominee and a national political climate driven by a rancorous election season.
Until recently, President Barack Obama’s administration had been moving ahead with a vast recalibration of the federal courts, with more than 300 judicial confirmations during his presidency.
Those nominees have added racial diversity to the federal courts and given nine of the 13 federal appeals courts a majority of Democratic nominees.
A third of the federal judiciary overall is now made up of Obama picks. In the Eastern District of Louisiana, 11 of the 15 sitting district judges were nominated by Democratic presidents, including three with senior status: Lemelle, Stanwood Duval and Peter Beer, according to the court.
But the pace of judicial confirmations has all but ground to a halt with the new Congress, said Russell Wheeler, an expert on the federal judiciary with the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Since Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, took over as chairman of the Judiciary Committee in January, only four of Obama’s nominees for district judge have won Senate confirmation, Wheeler said.
Two-thirds of the 66 current or anticipated district court vacancies are in states with at least one GOP senator, and Obama has submitted nominations for just six of them, according to Wheeler’s figures. In states with two Democratic senators, Obama has submitted nine nominations for 22 vacancies.
It may be that in Republican-led states, he figures: Why bother?
“I don’t know if the Republicans are saying, ‘We’ve suggested some reasonable people, but they’re not liberal enough for them or they’re not minority enough,’ or if the White House may be saying, ‘I’d rather have the vacancy than have this or that right-wing nominee,’ ” Wheeler said. “Nothing is going smoothly.”
Under the rules now in play, home state senators can single-handedly stall judicial nominations, “which makes it pointless for the president to nominate someone who their home state senators object to,” Wheeler said.
In such cases, presidents often look to the local congressman from their own party — in this case, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.
A spokesman for Richmond’s office did not respond to questions Thursday about the judicial opening.
Richmond is due to travel beginning next week with a group of Congressional Black Caucus members joining Obama on a trip to Africa.
One name that already has come up is Claude Kelly, who early last year was named federal public defender for the Eastern District. Kelly, a River Ridge lawyer whose résumé includes an early stint as an Orleans Parish prosecutor before turning to defense work, did not return a message Thursday.
Sources say Kelly is a close friend of Vitter and his wife, Wendy Vitter. Another possible advantage: Kelly already has passed an FBI background check.
On the other hand, one political insider suggested that Kelly, who is white, could be stymied by race in any bid to replace Lemelle, one of only two black federal district court judges on the bench in New Orleans.
The bigger question, though, is whether any nomination will go through before the next president takes office.
Even with Democrats in control of the Senate, President George W. Bush was able to get confirmations for 25 of 37 nominations submitted after July 16, 2007, the last year and a half of his final term. Over that period he also got 12 of 19 nominations that had been submitted before then.
Wheeler sees stiffer political headwinds now.
“I have my doubts that the current Senate will match that record, in part because of the paucity, so far at least, of nominations,” he said. “If I were a Louisiana lawyer or state or federal magistrate judge being talked about for a nomination, I would be hesitant to buy a new robe.”
Lemelle, who announced his plans for semi-retirement in October, has handled some noteworthy cases, including a battle over Louisiana’s school voucher program; the racketeering prosecution of Renee Gill Pratt and Mose Jefferson; and the pending prosecution of suspects in a Mother’s Day mass shooting that injured 20 people during a second-line parade in 2013.
Under senior status, he can continue presiding over a full or reduced docket.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.