Federal judges' retirements increasingly politically timed, study finds

A view of the judge's chair in court room 422 of the New York Supreme Court
A view of the judge's chair in a court room. REUTERS/Chip East
  • Judges routinely time taking senior status to White House occupant, study confirms
  • 65% of judges taking senior status under Biden are Democratic appointees

Feb 2 - Federal judges are increasingly basing their decisions to retire from active service on which party controls the White House rather than on nonpartisan or financial considerations that for decades were bigger factors, according to a new study.

Xiao Wang, a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, in an article published in the Minnesota Law Review this week said a data analysis confirms that judges are taking "senior status" in a politically strategic manner now more than ever.

Senior status is a form of semi-retirement for life-tenured judges over the age of 65 who have completed at least 15 years on the federal bench. Presidents may name new full-time judges to fill those judges' seats.

Wang wrote that for years the academic consensus was that judges took senior status for nonpartisan reasons, such as to take a step back, bring in a new judge to address rising caseloads or because of financial considerations.

But Wang's analysis of every senior status decision since 1919 found that although most circuit and district judges did not go into semi-retirement in a political manner for decades, "that calculus has shifted" since former Republican President George W. Bush's administration, which began in 2001.

Under both Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic President Bill Clinton, a majority of judges taking senior status were appointed by presidents of the opposite party.

Yet under George W. Bush, 72% of federal judges seeking senior status over his eight years in office had been appointed by a Republican president.

More than 57% of the 303 judges who went senior under Democratic President Barack Obama were Democratic appointees.

The highest rate was during former President Donald Trump's four years, when 110 of the 135 judges taking senior status were appointed by fellow Republicans, or 81.4%. That helped Trump make a near-record 234 judicial appointments.

About 65% of judges taking senior status during President Joe Biden's administration through July have been Democratic appointees. Several of their seats are now held by Biden's 97 confirmed judicial nominees.

Wang wrote that the results suggest "that Republican-appointed judges have acted in a significantly more politically strategic manner than their Democratic-appointed counterparts."

Wang said the difference may stem from how conservative groups like the Federalist Society have prioritized judicial nominations more than their liberal counterparts, a trend progressive groups like Demand Justice are trying to change.

"Democrats weren’t really paying attention to judges for a long time," Wang said in an interview.

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.