The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday overcame its frequent partisan rancor to recommend filling a crucial Fresno-based judicial seat, handily approving the nomination of U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd as a U.S. District Court judge.
The committee’s action on voice vote clears the way for Drozd’s elevation to a life-tenured position in the Eastern District of California, with final Senate approval possible at any time.
“I am so pleased that the Judiciary Committee approved Judge Drozd, an exceptional nominee who has a proven track record as a magistrate judge in the Eastern District for the last 18 years, including as chief magistrate judge for the last four years,” Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said in a statement.
If confirmed by the full Senate, as now appears probable, the 60-year-old Drozd will replace U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii. Ishii took senior status in 2012, a kind of quasi-retirement position in which he can choose to take cases, or not.
A graduate of San Diego State University and UCLA law school, Drozd was originally appointed as magistrate judge in the Clinton administration.
“He is well regarded in the legal community and among those who appear before him on a daily basis,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Both Feinstein and Boxer cited the heavy workload in the Eastern District, where the number of weighted filings per judge is about twice the national average. A weighted filing takes into account how much time a particular kind of case may take.
Still, final confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate is not guaranteed, as individual lawmakers can gum up the works for reasons of their own. Some non-controversial judicial nominees have waited months, while some higher-level appellate court nominees have waited years.
While noting the bipartisan voice vote Thursday was a good sign for Drozd, University of Richmond School of Law Professor Carl Tobias cautioned that the challenge isn’t over.
“If the Senate continues at the pace of confirming four nominees over five months this year, Fresno may have to wait a while for confirmation,” Tobias said Thursday.
Underscoring the ever-present ambush potential, Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana on Thursday cast a solitary vote against Drozd.
There are currently 58 vacant federal judge positions, for which the Obama administration has proposed 13 nominees during the Congress that began in January.
Almost always, the easiest positions to fill are at the trial-level district court. Senators raise higher hurdles for the appellate courts, where decisions set legal precedents binding upon entire regions.
Senate Republicans, for instance, effectively filibustered President Barack Obama’s February 2010 nomination of Goodwin H. Liu to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. After waiting about 15 months, Liu withdrew his nomination; Gov. Jerry Brown subsequently appointed him to the California Supreme Court.
Even district court nominees, moreover, face exacting scrutiny. Though Drozd’s roughly hour-long confirmation hearing last month seemed like easy sledding, as he shared the time with three other judicial nominees, it only hinted at what was going on behind the scenes.
Before the hearing, Drozd completed a committee questionnaire that, once finished, spanned 79 pages. The questionnaire documents everything from his 1978 legal internship at the National Prison Project to his volunteer work starting in the 1990s with the West Sacramento Little League.
Following the hearing, Republican senators pressed Drozd with an additional 29 questions, on topics ranging from several years-old cases in which an appellate court reversed him to Vitter’s hot-button queries about abortion and gun control. Like most successful nominees, Drozd played it cautious.
“If confirmed as a district judge, I would faithfully follow the binding precedent of the Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,” Drozd wrote, more than once.
In California, Feinstein and Boxer trade off making recommendations to the White House. Boxer recommended the nomination of Drozd.