Last Saturday, Eastern District of Virginia Judge Gerald Bruce Lee retired after 19 years of dedicated service on the court, which enjoys the well-deserved reputation as the “Rocket Docket” for its speedy resolution of civil litigation. Because the district needs all the court’s judges to discharge its constitutional responsibility to deliver justice, Virginia’s two senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, must work cooperatively with President Trump and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the senior Republican in the Virginia congressional delegation, to expeditiously fill Lee’s vacancy.
This spring, Lee informed President Trump that he would retire on Sept. 30. The jurist has resolved thousands of cases, including numerous high-profile suits. For example, he sentenced Ahmed Omar Abu Ali to 30 years in prison for plotting to kill former president George W. Bush. He ruled that the Washington Redskins name disparages Native Americans. He also urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenses, even as he imposed stiff sentences on repeat offenders. Lee also instituted many efforts to enhance diversity in the Eastern District, which is critical to justice in the federal courts.
On Aug. 25, Warner and Kaine announced that they were accepting applications to fill the vacancy. The senators asked an independent lawyers committee to review the applications and interview candidates. Warner and Kaine said they would then evaluate panel suggestions and recommend highly qualified individuals to Trump. Goodlatte has posted no similar announcement, but the representative did supply recommendations for the Western District of Virginia U.S. Attorney vacancy, which suggests he may tender analogous proposals for Lee’s vacancy. The senators and Goodlatte must submit multiple recommendations with reasons for their selections to Trump, so he will have flexibility to choose the best person.
When the White House receives the suggestions, the Counsel’s Office should promptly analyze them, interview candidates and recommend names to the president. The White House should carefully consult the senators and Goodlatte and reach consensus soon on the strongest candidate. Once the Senate receives the nomination, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman, must promptly institute panel investigation, convene a hearing at which members rigorously question the nominee and conduct a discussion and vote. After panel approval, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should arrange a floor debate and vote.
Lee said when announcing his retirement, “For 25 years, I’ve sent people to jail on Fridays. It’s time to do something more.” It would be fitting to promptly fill his vacancy with a nominee who is as dedicated to the law and justice as the jurist.
Carl Tobias is the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond.