Can a Totally Inexperienced Person Become a Federal Judge?

Because the United States Constitution does not list specific requirements for serving as a federal judge, an inexperienced person could, technically, become a federal judge. Most federal judges serve lifetime appointments. Therefore, it can be concerning to have inexperienced individuals serving on the federal bench.

Federal judges include:

  • United States Supreme Court Justices
  • Court of Appeals Judges
  • District Court Judges
  • Federal Magistrate Judges
  • Bankruptcy Judges

Even though there are no legal requirements to serve as a federal judge, the President and Congress have informal criteria. In the past, they have followed these criteria when nominating and approving candidates for the federal bench.

What is the Process for Appointing and Confirming Federal Judges?

The United States President appoints individuals as nominees to serve as federal judges. The President can nominate anyone he wishes as a federal judge. Members of the House and Senate often give the President suggestions of individuals they believe should be nominated as federal judges. 

The nominee does not need a law degree or any legal experience. However, each nominee must be confirmed by the United States Senate. 

The Senate has a tradition of vetting federal judge nominees to ensure they are qualified to serve on the federal bench. Additionally, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) conduct background checks on the nominees.

During Senate confirmation hearings, Senators question nominees about several areas that directly relate to their fitness and experience to serve as federal judges. Generally, questions asked by Senators include, but are not limited to:

  • Legal background and experience
  • Published and/or authored documents, papers, and articles
  • Previous judicial opinions 
  • Views on topics of interest to the general public, such as abortion, voting rights, and discrimination laws
  • Opinions regarding historical or landmark rulings by courts

Recently, Senators have called into question a nominee’s private life and issues that question the judge’s morals and beliefs. The nominee’s social media presence and conduct going back to when they were young adults may be questioned. 

While judges have had bipartisan support, recent nominees to the federal bench have generally been confirmed along party lines.

Examples of Inexperienced Judges Appointed to the Federal Bench

Individuals with little to no judicial experience or even legal experience have been appointed to serve as federal judges throughout history. Chief Justice John Marshall served on the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. 

Chief Justice Marshall was instrumental in several Supreme Court decisions that shaped our judicial system, including Marbury v. Madison. Yet, he formally studied law for six weeks before serving on the nation’s highest court. Other respected Supreme Court Justices had no prior judicial experience, including Earl Warren, William Rehnquist, and Louis Brandeis.

In addition to questions and “evidence” presented at Senate confirmation hearings, the American Bar Association (ABA) gives its opinion. The ABA rates nominees for federal judgeship based on their:

  • Experience
  • Competence
  • Integrity
  • Temperament
  • Other relevant factors

The ABA opinion was given great weight in past confirmation hearings. Many Senators would not vote for a candidate that the ABA found “not qualified” to sit on the federal bench. However, that is not the case today.

A recent example is the Honorable Kathryn Kimball Mizelle. She was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a substantial majority of the members of the ABA committee rated Judge Mizelle as not qualified. 

The Impact of Inexperienced Judges on the Federal Bench

Except for Federal Magistrate Judges and U.S. Bankruptcy Judges, federal judges serve for life. Therefore, an inexperienced judge can have a significant impact on shaping our judicial system for decades. The trend of appointing younger judges with less experience may change many of the longstanding judicial precedents established by the courts.

There are precedents for deciding whether an injured party met the legal requirements for holding a party financially liable in personal injury cases. Examples include:

  • Negligence claims for car accidents, slip and fall injuries, and wrongful death
  • Strict liability in defective product claims and abnormally dangerous activities 
  • Vicarious liability to hold an employer liable for injuries caused by an employee
  • Liability for injuries on another person’s property under premises liability laws

Judges may also issue rulings related to the compensation received by injured parties, including:

  • Caps on the amount of damages
  • The value of damages
  • When punitive damages may be awarded
  • What damages can be recovered for personal injury claims

State courts decide most personal injury cases based on the laws enacted for claims arising within that state. However, some personal injury cases make their way to the United States Supreme Court through the appeals process. 

Fortunately, most federal judges appointed to the bench are highly qualified, experienced individuals. But as this post has shown, that is not always the case.