9th Circuit judge urges Biden, Nevada senators to pick state AG's wife as successor

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The James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building, home of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is pictured in San Francisco, California February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Noah Berger

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  • 9th Circuit's Judge Johnnie Rawlinson recommends Berna Rhodes-Ford as successor
  • Rawlinson says she could be 'persuaded' to take senior status

April 14 - U.S. Circuit Judge Johnnie Rawlinson, the first Black woman to serve on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is weighing stepping down from active service -- and is urging the White House to pick a former clerk who is married to Nevada's attorney general as her successor.

Rawlinson, 69, on Thursday told Reuters she had expressed to both the White House and Nevada's two Democratic senators her desire for Berna Rhodes-Ford to be nominated to succeed her should she take senior status, a form of semi-retirement.

Rawlinson said she has not decided whether to take senior status, which would create a vacancy for President Joe Biden to fill, but could be "persuaded" to do so if it would sustain the "legacy" of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

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U.S. Circuit Judge Johnnie Rawlinson of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals appears in an undated photo. 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals/Handout via REUTERS

Former President Bill Clinton nominated Rawlinson to the 9th Circuit in 2000 at the recommendation of Reid, a Democrat, who died in December and had focused on diversifying Nevada's federal bench.

"I wanted to make sure Senator Reid's vision and legacy are carried forward," Rawlinson said. "And in my mind, Berna Rhodes-Ford would be the perfect person to do that."

Her views were first reported by the Nevada Independent.

Rhodes-Ford, Democratic Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford's wife, told Reuters that Rawlinson initially reached out to her about a nomination.

"And, of course, who would say no to that honor, and so I said, well sure, I would be interested," said Rhodes-Ford, who is Black.

It is unclear if she will ultimately be nominated or would be recommended by Nevada's two Democratic senators, Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, who would typically recommend nominees to Biden.

"My gut reaction is that the optics of this will make it harder for Rhodes-Ford, because it will look like, and potentially set a precedent, for judges formally choosing their successors," said John Collins, a visiting law professor at George Washington University.

Spokespeople for both Cortez Masto and Rosen separately said that if a Nevada vacancy were to open up on the 9th Circuit, they would continue supporting the work of two commissions she and Rosen established to vet candidates.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Rhodes-Ford has experience in labor and employment, corporate and health care law and has worked at law firms including Littler Mendelson and Holland & Hart.

The 9th Circuit hears appeals from nine states including Nevada. Rhodes-Ford, 50, said she would recuse herself from matters in which her husband represents the state.

(NOTE: This story has been updated to add comments from U.S. Circuit Judge Johnnie Rawlinson.)

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