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An unqualified federal judge is a serious problem.
In the most rudimentary civics class you’ll learn that a strong and fair judicial branch is critical to our democracy, creating a check that limits the powers of the federal government. To fulfill this role, the judiciary must be filled with fair-minded, learned and honorable men and women.
There are many federal judgeships — 890 — that fill specific roles in that democratic duty, as prescribed in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court is the highest in the land, but circuit and district courts are also accountable for proper reading and rendering of the law.
No decision falls on a single judge. There is room for our sometimes clunky democracy to play out across several venues, and no single interpretation of the law can stand above the broad understanding held by the majority of these judges.
But any time an unqualified judge is seated, the integrity of the entire system becomes weaker. These judges are appointed for life, and outside of impeachment by the Congress they serve until they retire or die. Unqualified candidates also lower the bar, so to speak, making room for more partisan politics to play into future appointments and real concerns of character and conduct to be overlooked.
We understand what’s at stake. We know that politics will always play a part in appointments. President Donald Trump claims the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Judge Neil Gorsuch as one of the great accomplishments of his first year in office, and many conservative voters listed that appointment as their top reason for voting for Trump. We also know that four of the other judicial nominees selected by the Trump administration have been graded by the American Bar Association as “not qualified.”
With all that in mind, it’s unfortunate to see Ryan Bounds’ nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals take on an unfair tarnish due to a few lines in a few opinion pieces he wrote when he was at Stanford University more than 20 years ago.
There is writing, done at any stage of life, that would be disqualifying. This would include arguments for white supremacy or against free speech, or statements that display an implicit bias against certain people or groups.
Bounds’ statements that have come to light so far — in the form of op-eds from the mid-1990s in the Stanford Review — do not nearly meet that standard. While he has admitted they were both tone-deaf and insensitive, we struggle to find anything more nefarious. As a college student he took a little too much glee, it seems, in painting a sarcastic picture of race-based organizations — not the races, but some campus groups — and his musings on punishment for sexual assault allegations presented a lack of respect for victims.
We’d hope that college is a time of sharpening one’s mind and viewpoints, and that opinions formed and expressed during that time are not intractably held for the rest of one’s life. By that token, we should be very interested in allowing students to express their ideas and arguments without fear of reprisal at some future date.
Bounds said he has matured, and there’s ample evidence of that. His professional career in the decades since show him to be a respectable attorney and judge, and a bi-partisan committee that reviewed his nomination found him to be more than capable of the job based on that record.
Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, however, are questioning his qualifications based solely on the writing. Rep. Greg Walden has continued to support Bounds.
It’s no secret where the motives lie. The Democratic senators would rather not see a young, conservative judge added this court, and the Republican representative would. It’s worth noting that Bounds has a connection to Walden’s office — his sister, Lorissa Bounds, is Walden’s chief of staff — but neither the appointee committee nor the East Oregonian find that conflict to be disqualifying, either.
What we hope for is a judicial selection process that stays away from partisan politics as much as possible, allowing the best and fairest legal minds to hold important seats that keep our democracy in check.