There has been a lot of attention given to the appointment of federal judges during the Trump Administration. Some of the appointments have been controversial. 

There have been allegations of potential wrongdoing, lack of fitness, and inexperience. The appointment of Patrick Wyrick to the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma included allegations of a scandal.

It can be concerning that a person could be appointed to a federal judgeship without any experience. When you have a case go before a federal court, you assume the judge presiding over your case has the knowledge and experience necessary to dispense justice according to our laws. However, judges can and are appointed to the federal courts with little to no experience.

What are the Requirements to Become a Federal Court Judge?

The United States Constitution does not specify any requirements for becoming a federal court judge. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, whose famous decision in Marbury v. Madison (1803) created the theory of judicial review of acts of Congress, studied law for just six weeks before joining the court.

Several other Supreme Court Justices had little judicial experience before being appointed to the court. However, the decision of who sits on our highest court in the country rests in the hands of just 51 United States Senators. The Constitution nor any other federal law requires Senators to use a specific set of criteria to select justices.

The same situation applies to judges on other federal benches. 

Federal judges appointed to serve on district courts, courts of appeal, and the Supreme Court are nominated by the United States President. The judges are confirmed after hearings in the United States Senate. Having a law degree is not required to serve on a federal court. 

Even though there are no legal requirements for federal judges to serve on the courts, there has been a long-established process for appointing federal judges. Judicial candidates are subject to thorough background checks by the FBI and the Department of Justice. 

During the Senate confirmation hearing, judicial candidates are questioned about several topics. Senators ask questions about topics including:

  • Past judicial decisions
  • Experience
  • Published writings
  • Public views 
  • Historical court decisions
  • And many other subjects of public interest

In recent Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominees, we have seen how detailed and intensive questioning can be for nominees. 

The American Bar Association (ABA) reviews federal judge nominees. They review the individual’s experience, integrity, temperament, and competence. The ABA issues ratings based on their review. 

The ABA rating for a potential judge could be:

  • Not qualified
  • Qualified
  • Well-qualified

Recently, several federal judges have been confirmed by the Senate even though they have a “not qualified” rating from the ABA. Kathryn Kimball Mizelle was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. She was confirmed even though the ABA standing committee found that she lacked courtroom experience. 

Federal judges serve on the bench for life, except for Federal Magistrate Judges and U.S. Bankruptcy Judges. Appointing inexperienced, young judges to the federal bench can have long-term impacts on our judicial system. 

The written opinions and oral decisions made by judges can impact public policy. The decisions can set precedents for future cases that significantly impact the lives of many Americans. 

New decisions in personal injury cases could change victims’ rights. Decisions could affect car accident cases, medical malpractice claims, product liability claims, premises liability claims, and many other personal injury cases. 

Changes in any of the laws governing personal injury claims could significantly impact the individuals injured through no fault of their own.

Do We Need to Worry?

For most individuals, the nomination of federal judges is not a top concern. However, as citizens, we should be worried when inexperienced judges are confirmed to the federal bench. While most people may never have a case that is heard by a federal judge, the decisions these judges make could eventually impact cases in state courts.

However, it is wise to keep in mind that there is a process in place for choosing and confirming federal judges. There may be some judges confirmed that are inexperienced. 

Still, the majority of individuals confirmed as federal judges are qualified. They have the experience, law degrees, and other qualifications we expect individuals to have before being confirmed to serve on federal courts.

Our judicial system is designed to prevent one judge from becoming too powerful. Parties to lawsuits have the right to appeal decisions. Appeals can be based on a variety of situations, including misconduct or errors made by judges.