It’s nearly a year away, but speculation over who will fill U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy’s seat behind the federal bench has already begun.
Murphy recently announced he will retire in December and return to private practice in Marion. He was appointed to the post in 1997.
His impending retirement creates a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois for the first time in more than a decade.
Chief Judge David Herndon said he expects the vacancy will be filled and that Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, will soon name a committee to consider and recommend potential candidates.
Durbin, he said, will then pass on his recommendation to President Barack Obama, who will submit his nomination to the Senate for approval.
Durbin spokeswoman Maria McElwain said Durbin has received notice of Murphy's retirement and "will be putting together a process to fill his vacancy in the Southern District of Illinois in the coming weeks."
Belleville attorney Tom Keefe, who serves as interim dean of St. Louis University Law School and has sat on a judicial screening committee in the past, said he personally believes Murphy’s successor should be a woman.
“Women are critically important to giving us diversity on the federal bench,” Keefe said. “We (the Southern District) have never had a woman serve as an Article III judge. I’m sure Durbin and Obama will give due consideration to the importance of diversity.”
Along those lines, Keefe said one could look at all female attorneys and state circuit and appellate court judges under the age of 55 in the Southern District, which encompasses more than three dozen counties, to get an idea of potential candidates.
Although there is no age requirements to be a federal judge, Keefe said it's an unwritten rule that the Senate doesn't confirm candidates much older than that. Since appointments are for life, Keefe said, lawmakers in the majority want to get as much "bang for their buck" with their president's pick.
In Madison County, Keefe said, his line of speculation would point to Chief Judge Ann Callis and possibly Circuit Judges Barbara Crowder and Kyle Napp. Crowder, however, is over 55 and Napp was just elected a circuit judge in November.
Callis said Monday that she had no comment as to whether she has any interest in applying for the soon-to-be-vacant federal judgeship.
Keefe said Callis “is a very, very accomplished judge” and “would be a spectacular candidate.” He said he was not surprised by her "no comment,” saying it’s still too early in the process and expects that potential candidates are still weighing their options.
Belleville attorney Bruce N. Cook, who recently led a panel that reviewed the retention of U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald G. Wilkerson, said he believes Callis “would be a fine, federal judge.”
Both Cook and Keefe are friends of Callis’s family and acknowledged that there are a lot of qualified female circuit and appellate court judges in the Southern District who would make solid candidates.
Both, however, questioned whether either female Fifth District Appellate Court justice – Judy Cates and Melissa Chapman-- would express in interest in the position.
Chapman was retained and Cates was just elected to the appeals panel in the last election. In addition, both women are 60 or older.
While state judges might have a leg up on attorneys when it comes to applying for a federal judgeship, Keefe said that highly qualified candidates could come out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as well as local state’s attorney’s offices and large law firms.
Cook noted that neither Murphy nor Reagan had any judicial experience when they were appointed to the federal bench and both have proven to be “wonderful judges.”
Cook and Keefe said the decisions of judicial screening committees typically focus on the candidates’ skills and reputation.
Cook said federal judges need to be hardworking and respected individuals who have experience, the ability to understand complex issues and a reputation for being even-keeled. And “they can’t have bleeding hearts,” he added.
Keefe said candidates for a federal judgeship should exceed in the typical election bar poll categories: legal ability, integrity, impartiality and judicial temperament.
They also need to be able to pass rigorous background testing and if they are in private practice, be willing to sacrifice their salary for that of a federal judge, who brings in about $175,000 a year.
“It’s going to be interesting. It always is and it’s darn important,” Keefe said of the judicial selection and confirmation process. “Being a federal judge is not only a tremendous honor, but it’s a tremendous responsibility that comes with a lifetime appointment.”