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Sidney Thomas, former chief judge of the Ninth Circuit, to retire

Thomas wrote 406 precedential opinions and heard nearly 12,000 appeals during his 26 years on the Ninth Circuit bench.

(CN) — U.S. Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas, former chief of the Ninth Circuit, said Tuesday that he would take senior status — essentially a quasi-retirement for circuit judges — giving the Biden administration another opportunity to fill a slot on the influential appellate bench.

It was “a great honor and a privilege to serve as an active judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for 26 years,” Thomas wrote to President Joe Biden informing him of his decision. 

Thomas already announced he was stepping down from his role as chief judge this past December. 

Biden will now have three vacancies to fill on the California-based appellate court that often hears some of the most important cases in the country, particularly from the technology sector. 

Thomas served on the Ninth Circuit beginning in 1996, when he was appointed by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. He served as chief judge of the court from 2014 until 2021, bringing several technological innovations to the court, according to a statement from the Ninth Circut.

Those innovations include the streaming of oral arguments on YouTube, which occurred even before the Covid-19 pandemic rendered the platform a more indispensable tool for the court. 

Thomas wrote 406 precedential opinions during his stint on the federal circuit, hearing approximately 11,500 appeals over the course of his 26-year career.

Part of the chief justice's duties include organizing and presiding over the court’s en banc process, sometimes rife with internal court politics, but Thomas was routinely praised for his evenhanded approach. Court colleagues have commended his ability to straddle ideological factions in the politically divided Ninth Circuit. 

A native of Bozeman, Montana, he began as a private attorney in Billings, where he also taught law at the Rocky Mountain College. 

Thomas wrote the opinions in several groundbreaking cases, including siding with the Sierra Club in 2020 in holding that the Department of Defense was in error when it appropriated funds for the construction of then-President Donald Trump’s border wall despite Congress’s open refusal to fund it. 

Thomas held the move violated the Appropriations Clause, but his decision was effectively reversed by a 5-4 decision at the U.S. Supreme Court.

One of his most cited opinions involved the case of Ahilan Nadarajah, a native of Sri Lanka who was held indefinitely at the discretion of U.S. attorney general on suspicion of terrorism. In 2006, Thomas issued a writ of mandate releasing Nadarajah while finding that the government exceeded its statutory authority in detaining him for five years without a trial. 

The opinion has been cited at least 175 times.

On April 10, 2010, The Associated Press reported that then-President Barak Obama interviewed Thomas at the White House, likely in consideration for the Supreme Court that eventually went to Elena Kagan. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Murguia of Phoenix replaced Thomas as chief judge. In doing so, Murguia became the second woman and first Latina to hold the position.

Thomas became the third to take senior status on the Ninth Circuit in 2022, following U.S. Circuit Judges Andrew Hurwitz and Margaret McKeown in January. The retirement will give the Biden administration further opportunity to stock the federal judiciary with preferred nominees while control of the U.S. Senate and the nominating process is still in Democratic hands. 

To date, Biden has nominated more jurists to the federal bench than any other president since Ronald Reagan in 1981

The United States Senate has confirmed 56 Article III judges during Biden’s stint in the White House, with 15 judges appointed to the courts of appeals. Twenty-seven nominations await Senate action, including the anticipated confirmation vote for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. 

Biden has so far appointed Judges Lucy Koh, Jennifer Sung, Gabriel Sanchez and Holly Thomas to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit is approved for 29 judgeships and currently has three vacancies. 

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