7 Named on Short List for U.S. Bench

Jeri K. Somers, a U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals judge, handles disputes over federal contracts.
Jeri K. Somers, a U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals judge, handles disputes over federal contracts.

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By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

In the world of law and justice, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria occupies a prominent place.

Terror suspects are tried there, as are people accused of spying, being gang members and defrauding the Pentagon. Major corporate fraud cases are brought there, whizzing through what is known nationally as the "rocket docket." Prosecutors from the courthouse often go on to top jobs at the Justice Department in Washington.

"It really is a very special court," said lawyer Anthony J. Trenga, of Alexandria, who has practiced there for years.

Trenga is one of several lawyers seeking a plumb job: a judgeship at the federal courthouse, which is at the edge of Old Town. An opening was created when U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III took "senior status" -- a sort of semi-retirement -- last month. The vacancy prompted an intense competition among bar associations and other legal groups to lobby Virginia's two U.S. senators on behalf of their favorite candidates.

Earlier this month, Sens. John W. Warner (R) and James Webb (D) sent a list of seven finalists to the White House for President Bush's consideration as replacements for Ellis. The candidates are Trenga, Arlington Circuit Court Judge Joanne F. Alper, of Arlington, U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals Judge Jeri K. Somers of Arlington; Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jonathan C. Thacher of Fairfax Station and three candidates from elsewhere in the state.

Although the timetable is unclear, it is considered virtually certain that Bush will select someone from the list. Presidents traditionally follow the lead of the senators from the state in which there are vacancies. Bush also will choose a candidate for a federal judgeship in Richmond, created when Judge Robert E. Payne took senior status on May 7. Both nominees require Senate confirmation.

There also is a second opening at the Alexandria federal courthouse: U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton took senior status in December 2005. Bush has nominated U.S. Magistrate Judge Liam O'Grady of Alexandria to succeed Hilton. The Senate Judiciary Committee had its first hearing on O'Grady's candidacy this month.

Magistrate judges hear misdemeanor cases and some felony matters, and are considered junior to U.S. district judges, who handle all types of cases. Senior judges receive full pay and hear cases, but they can take a reduced workload and are not considered active-service members of the court. It is unclear how many cases Ellis will hear.

Ellis, 67, is respected for his thorough legal opinions and feared by some for his occasionally irascible demeanor. He has been known to keep lawyers waiting up to 45 minutes before starting hearings, then giving those same lawyers a tongue-lashing if he thinks they are unprepared.

"He has certainly made his presence known," said William B. Cummings, a former U.S. attorney and longtime Alexandria lawyer. "He has set a high standard for research and preparation. He will be remembered for that -- and for ordering lawyers at the last minute to go back and rebrief an issue at nine at night.''

A nominee of President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Ellis has handled numerous high-profile cases, including those of John Walker Lindh, the Californian who fought for Afghanistan's Taliban, and the ongoing prosecution of two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "He seems to relish having the big cases," Cummings said.

There has been no shortage of high-status cases at the Alexandria courthouse, which handles federal cases from throughout Northern Virginia. Some of the nation's biggest espionage cases have been brought there, including those of convicted spies Robert P. Hanssen, a former FBI agent, and Aldrich H. Ames, a former CIA operations officer.


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