U.S. District Court Judge Steven McAuliffe assuming senior status
Judge Steven McAuliffe, far right, walks near the front of the Chirsta McAuliffe School during the Concord elementary schools grand opening on Sunday, August 26, 2012. McAuliffe was there to deliver remarks during the ceremony for the school named after his late wife. (Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff)
On Monday Judge Steven McAuliffe will assume “senior status,” a form of semi-retirement that will open a vacancy at Concord’s U.S. District Court. But for now, it seems, nothing at the court will change.
A compounding backlog of federal judicial vacancies – spurred by Republicans in the U.S. Senate who have blocked nominations – will likely draw out the appointment of a successor. McAuliffe has agreed to keep his full caseload until a replacement is in place, said Chief Deputy Clerk Daniel Lynch.
Under senior status, which is generally allowed when a judge is 65 years old and has served 15 years, a judge retains the title while taking on a lesser workload. The judge continues to receive full pay but is no longer counted as an active member of the court.
McAuliffe, appointed to the bench in 1992, gave notice of his intent to take senior status in December to President Obama, who will nominate a replacement. Typically the president seeks the recommendations of his party’s most senior senator from the state where the judge serves.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen made her three recommendations Monday, her press secretary, Elizabeth Kenigsberg, said. Kenigsberg, who declined to provide those names, said Shaheen first consulted with members of the state’s law enforcement and legal communities as well as with Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
“We are aware of the backlog which is why Senator Shaheen submitted recommendations as quickly as possible,” Kenigsberg said in an email. “We want to make sure there is as little disruption as possible to New Hampshire’s federal court system and its functions.”
There are currently 66 vacancies for U.S. District Court judges and 17 nominees awaiting action by the Senate.
Many nominees have waited a year or more before being approved by the Senate, said Sheldon Goldman, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and an expert on judicial selection.
Goldman said it’s been common practice for the last 25 years for senators from the president’s opposing party to stall nominations. But since Obama was elected, the problem has gotten much worse, as the Senate began not just blocking appointments of the more powerful appellate court judges but also district court judges, he said. When the new Senate convened in January, the parties struck an agreement to speed up the process for district court appointments. But so far, said Goldman, nothing has changed.
Only a handful of nominees have been approved in the past three months.
“I think what the Obama administration is probably telling nominees is that look, you know, you’ll eventually get confirmed, but it’s going to take a long time because of how the Republicans are operating now,” Goldman said.
Goldman said it’s becoming common for judges to do what McAuliffe has, agreeing to take a full caseload despite being granted senior status.
“In recent years, particularly during the Obama administration . . . district
court judges going on senior status have really felt an obligation to their courts, certainly until, at the very least, the vacancy has been filled,” he said. “It’s putting a real strain on the judicial branch of government.”
McAuliffe did not respond to an interview request.
There’s currently one senior judge at Concord’s U.S. District Court, Judge Joseph DiClerico. He took senior status in March 2007 and was replaced by Judge Joseph Laplante in December of that year.