May 2, 2019

Picking the Right Judges: Four “I”s to Look For

Harsh Voruganti Founder and Principal, Voruganti Law Firm

Harsh Voruganti is a DC Lawyer Chapter Board Member and the Founder and Editor of the Vetting Room.

For the first time in years, the legal left is talking about judges.  Whether it’s ending lifetime tenure, or “court packing,” progressives are considering and debating ways to make an impact on the bench.  However, few people are talking about exactly who those new seats should go to.  In other words, what makes a progressive judge different than a conservative judge.  Even more simply, what are the qualities of a good judge?

Obviously, liberals and conservatives will disagree as to certain attributes, such as the endorsement of originalism, membership in the Federalist Society or the American Constitution Society, or work as a civil rights lawyer.  Personally, I’d narrow it down to four attributes that all judges, regardless of party, must exhibit to be worthy of an appointment: the Four “I”s of Judging.

First, a judge must have integrity.  While the recent confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh has reignited debates over ethics codes for the Supreme Court, integrity goes beyond rote adherence to the letter of the law.  Rather, a judge with integrity seeks to conduct themselves in all circumstances as a servant of the law.  In other words, not only does a judge need to be in conformity with the law and all relevant ethics codes, he or she must treat all individuals with respect and dignity.  Further, he or she must refrain from promoting racism, sexism, homophobia, religious or anti-religious bigotry on or off the bench.  As such, a state judge who commits campaign finance violations, a prosecutor who skirts Brady obligations, and a lawyer who uses the law to help his clients legally discriminate against transgender employees all lack the requisite integrity for the bench.

Second, a judge should demonstrate intellect.  Intellect can manifest itself in many ways but includes both intelligence and intellectual curiosity.  A judge should have an interest in the law and in learning and supplementing their knowledge.  In addition, for obvious reasons, a judge needs to have the requisite intelligence to understand and parse complex issues they are presented with.  They also need to be able to adapt to changes in the law and adjust their jurisprudence accordingly.  Judges who routinely fail to understand legal arguments or lawyers who fail to comprehend the law they are parsing have no place on the bench.

Third, a judge must maintain industry.  In an increasingly overburdened legal system, judges need to be willing to put in the work needed to keep up with their caseload, as well as extra work as needed to ensure that litigants receive prompt, well-reasoned decisions.  Lawyers who cut corners rather than conduct diligent representation or judges who fail to show up to work on time or to keep their dockets moving efficiently lack this important qualification.

Fourth and perhaps most important, a judge must demonstrate impartiality.  In other words, a judge must have no bias or allegiance in a courtroom other than to the rule of law.  Any judge who shapes their decisions to the views of a political party, intellectual theory of interpretation, or, worst of all, towards a party they feel sympathy for, fails the test of impartiality.

Obviously, lawyers can always find additional criteria to prioritize on top of those listed above.  However, there should be general agreement that these four qualities: integrity; intellect; industry; and impartiality, are essential to a judge.  As such, a candidate must demonstrate all four in order to justify nomination and confirmation.  Regardless of whether or not “court packing” or other judicial reform actually happens, I hope the next President selects judges who possess all four of the “Is” needed to be a good judge.

Importance of the Courts, Judicial Nominations, Nominees