Senate Panel Advances Five District Judge Nominees

Senators on the committee voted to fill three of 17 emergency vacancies in California federal courts.

The Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse for the Central District of California in downtown Los Angeles. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved five of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, including three who would sit on federal courts in California.

Though the Republican-controlled Senate’s focus on judges has resulted in 200 of Trump’s nominees being placed on federal courts across the country, California’s courts have languished with open seats as the White House and California’s senators, both Democrats, have struggled to find mutually agreeable nominees who could be confirmed. 

There are currently 17 vacancies on federal trial courts in California, all of which the Judicial Conference has deemed judicial emergencies. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which hears cases from Los Angeles and surrounding counties, is particularly short-staffed, with 10 judicial emergencies out of 27 authorized judgeships.

The Southern District of California, meanwhile, has another five judicial emergencies out of 13 judgeships.

Three of the nominees the Judiciary Committee advanced on Thursday — all on a unanimous voice vote — would fill seats on those courts if confirmed.

“These are nominees who know the districts where they will serve if confirmed and I believe they have demonstrated in their legal careers the skills needed to serve as fair and impartial judges,” California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, said Thursday.

John Holcomb, whom Trump chose for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California last September, currently works as a partner at the Costa Mesa firm Greenberg Gross. He spent 2002-2018 at the Irvine firm Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear and also worked as an associate in the firm’s Newport Beach office before that.

A Navy veteran and member of the conservative Federalist Society, Holcomb’s practice focuses on intellectual property and trade secrets, as well as bankruptcy and commercial litigation.

Shireen Matthews and Todd Robinson, both of whom would sit on the Southern District of California, also received unanimous support on Thursday.

Matthews, who would be the first woman of south Asian descent to sit on the court, has worked in the San Diego office of Jones Day since 2013. She also worked as a federal prosecutor in the city for five years and was an associate at Latham Watkins in San Diego from 2005-2008.

In addition to handling complex corporate litigation, Matthews’ practice at Jones Day primarily involves working with companies to conduct internal investigations and representing firms facing investigations and regulatory proceedings by the federal government.

Matthews’ clients have included Qualcomm, which she represented in a trade secrets and contract dispute with Apple. 

At their June nomination hearing, Matthews and Holcomb found themselves at the center of a debate among conservatives over the role and proper application of textualism and originalism sparked by recent Supreme Court decisions.

A member of the Federalist Society, Robinson is a longtime federal prosecutor in San Diego, having held the position since 1997 with a one-year break in 2004, when he worked for the CIA. Robinson also worked as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice’s narcotic and dangerous drug section from 1993-1997.

Many of the cases Robinson identified to the Judiciary Committee as his most important involved drug trafficking and organized crime. He also prosecuted three Pakistanis who pleaded guilty to charges related to their plans to buy Stinger missiles that would be used to shoot down U.S. military planes in Afghanistan.

Brett Ludwig, a nominee to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, also received unanimous approval from the committee Thursday morning. Ludwig currently works as a bankruptcy judge on the court and worked as a prosecutor at the Milwaukee firm Foley & Lardner for two decades before taking the bench.

Christy Wiegand, who would sit on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, was the only nominee not unanimously approved, though she even received support from half of the committee’s Democrats.

Approved on a 17-5 vote Thursday, Wiegand has worked as a federal prosecutor in the Western District of Pennsylvania since 2004 and also worked as an associate at the Washington, D.C. firm Arnold & Porter from 2000-2002.

Feinstein spoke favorably of both Ludwig and Wiegand, calling them qualified nominees worthy of confirmation.

“I believe both Judge Ludwick and Ms. Wiegand will be ready to serve on day one,” Feinstein said.

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