When presidents get attention for their judicial appointments, it’s usually for their U.S. Supreme Court selections, or, more rarely, their circuit court picks. But over the course of a four-year term, the average president makes more than 100 appointments to the federal district courts. Most of these judges rule in obscurity, which is why we were especially curious to find out: Which recent appointments stand out?

We didn’t try to judge the judges ourselves. Rather, we talked to litigators across the country and asked them to name the federal district court judges who have impressed them the most. Among the questions we asked: Which judges are known for the quality and significance of their opinions? Which judges have handled big cases? Most significantly, which judges are likely candidates for a circuit court nomination? We also wanted to look at roughly equal numbers of Republican and Democratic appointments, so we limited our consideration to judges appointed since 2005 — President George W. Bush’s second term, and President Barack Obama’s ­administration.

Our survey is a subjective one — we aren’t presenting our selections as the best judges on the federal bench. Rather, these are judges to watch. We found that there was a surprising amount of consensus among the litigators we interviewed, especially about notable judges in the powerhouse venues of the Southern District of New York and the Northern District of California. Litigators also pointed us to some outstanding judges in less-prominent venues. Some of the judges on our list have already been in the news because of headline-grabbing rulings in major cases. But even the judges with less high-profile dockets were recommended for being fair, calm, and scholarly.

While many members of the legal profession can be relentless self-promoters (hello, litigators!), judges generally avoid publicity, because they don’t want their personalities to distract from their rulings. That can make it a little difficult to know which members of the bench are doing great work. Our list should offer some guidance.

Click on the photos below to read about the judges.

EDMOND CHANG
Northern District of Illinois
LIAM O’GRADY
Eastern District of Virginia
PAUL ENGELMAYER
Southern District of New York
RICHARD SEEBORG
Northern District of California
KATHERINE FORREST
Southern District of New York
RICHARD SULLIVAN
Southern District of New York
JAMES RODNEY GILSTRAP
Eastern District of Texas
AMUL THAPAR
Eastern District of Kentucky
LUCY KOH
Northern District of California
LISA GODBEY WOOD
Southern District of Georgia