Colorado Senators Bennet Hickenlooper

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, D-Colo., front, makes a point as U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., looks on during a visit to a pair of buses set up as traveling clinics as part of the state’s Vaccines For All” campaign on Friday, June 18, 2021, in Aurora, Colo.

Nearly seven months into the Biden administration, California has 20 current or upcoming judicial vacancies in its federal trial courts. There are zero nominees.

New York has nine vacancies. Zero nominees.

Pennsylvania? Five vacancies and zero nominees.

But in Colorado, President Joe Biden has filled all three judicial vacancies with nominees, one of which has already won confirmation. Those who follow the judicial nominating and confirmation process believe Colorado has been quick to repopulate its bench for one likely reason: U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper have been fast at making their preferences known.

"There doesn't seem to be any question that Colorado's senators are on top of this," said John P. Collins, Jr., a visiting associate professor at The George Washington University's school of law.

Although senators confirm judges to the federal trial courts and circuit courts of appeals, they are also involved in screening and selecting judges based in their home states. In a December 2020 letter from incoming White House Counsel Dana Remus, she asked that Democratic senators send three recommended candidates for each U.S. District Court seat within 45 days of a vacancy, and to prioritize candidates of diverse backgrounds and experiences.

In Colorado, Biden inherited a vacancy on the state's seven-member federal trial court when he took office. Bennet and Hickenlooper recommended Regina M. Rodriguez to the White House in early February, and she is now a sitting judge.

It is unclear when the senators sent Veronica S. Rossman's name to the White House to succeed Senior Judge Carlos F. Lucero on the federal appeals court based in Denver, but her formal nomination came three months after Lucero announced he was stepping down.

Finally, the senators forwarded three names to the White House in May for another district court vacancy that arose approximately 45 days prior. Biden selected his nominee last week, employment discrimination attorney Charlotte N. Sweeney.

"I think it's less a compare-and-contrast of which senators are doing processes that might be quicker. It's more just a reflection that Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper from day one prioritized getting names as expeditiously to the president as possible," said Daniel L. Goldberg, legal director of the progressive legal advocacy group Alliance for Justice.

Nationwide, there are 84 current and 32 future judicial vacancies. The Senate has confirmed nine Biden nominees so far. The journey from vacancy to confirmation can be different depending upon the Senate offices and the circumstances involved.

Collins said it may take longer for states with one Republican and one Democratic senator to agree on nominees. In California, he speculated that the combination of a newly-appointed senator and a desire for non-traditional judge candidates may be slowing down the nominations. 

"Pennsylvania has a tradition where the senator from the White House's party gets to choose nominees for three out of four vacancies, and the other gets to choose one," Collins added.

Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law argued that the particular recommendations of Colorado's senators may have also streamlined the decision making: Rodriguez was previously a nominee of the Obama administration. Rossman is a public defender with civil litigation experience. And Sweeney would be the first openly LGBTQ federal judge in Colorado.

"The Colorado senators have been responsive to the White House by expeditiously recommending diverse, experienced, well-qualified candidates and doing so much faster than the larger states with more judges and vacancies," said Tobias.

In Colorado's case, both senators are Democrats and have a long professional and personal history. When Hickenlooper was the mayor of Denver, Bennet was his chief of staff. During the 2020 election cycle, when both men ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hickenlooper called Bennet one of "my favorite people, one of my oldest friends."

Praise for the speedy recommendations also mentioned the advisory screening committee the senators established. While Bennet and Hickenlooper earned criticism from progressives over their nomination of Rodriguez, a corporate attorney, the nominations of Sweeney and Rossman received a warm welcome from the liberal group Demand Justice.

Following the Rodriguez nomination, "Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper announced a new advisory committee that included more professionally diverse lawyers," Demand Justice wrote in a statement, after calling Sweeney "exactly the kind of lawyer we need to rebalance a federal court system."

A spokesperson for Hickenlooper's office said the senator is proud of the joint advisory committee's work.

"The fact that the White House has moved so quickly to fill these vacancies reflects on the quality of nominees the senators have recommended," the spokesperson said.

In addition to furthering Democrats' goal of putting a more diverse array of judges on the bench, Biden's nominations in Colorado have also had the practical effect of extinguishing a "judicial emergency" at the district court — meaning caseloads per judges exceeded established thresholds when there were fewer than the allotted seven members.

"Hopefully, all senators will follow the lead of Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper in terms of expeditiously prioritizing giving names to the White House," said Goldberg. "I think they can really be a model for the type of nominees who should be recommended."

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