J. Curtis Joyner, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, plans to step down and take senior status this spring, leaving the top spot to U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker, who will be the first woman to serve that position in the district.
Having been on the bench for 21 years and the chief judge for just under two years, Joyner, at 64, “wanted to slow down a little bit,” he said. Joyner came on the bench, after having been a judge in Chester County for five years, younger than most district court judges do, he said.
Also, he wanted to give his colleagues an opportunity to serve as chief. Which judge rises to the top is “basically luck of the draw” based on when he or she is named to the bench, Joyner said. Whichever judge is under 65 and has the most seniority takes the post, he said. Tucker, who is 61 and has been on the bench since 2000, is next in line.
Joyner calculated his departure from active status on the court to help blunt the most pressing problem facing the district — judicial vacancies. By leaving his post now, Joyner said, the seat he leaves on the bench can be addressed along with the three that already exist instead of waiting for the next cycle, which takes about a year.
Currently, there are six vacancies in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and three of them have nominations that have yet to be confirmed by the Senate. The other three opened over the course of the last year and the process for Pennsylvania’s senators to make recommendations to the White House on nominees is just starting to get under way. Joyner’s seat will add a fourth vacancy to be considered.
In a joint press release issued by U.S. Senators Robert P. Casey Jr., D-Pa., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., in late December, applications for those who want to be considered for the bench are due by January 25.
Joyner said that when he came to the court, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, who served from 1981 to 2011, was attuned to vacancies and saw to it that they be filled quickly. Specter died in October 2012.
Over the last couple of administrations, circuit court nominees have been harder to get through the Senate than district court nominees, but, recently, whatever pervaded the circuit judge process has metastasized in the district court process, said Russell Wheeler, who tracks the judicial nomination process at the Brookings Institution, just after the three Eastern District of Pennsylvania nominees were made in November.
Regarding the increasingly lengthy confirmation process, Wheeler said that the average number of days that President Clinton nominees waited, from their nomination to their confirmation, was 93 days; for President Bush’s nominees, it was 154; and for President Obama, it has been 221 days. In a similar vein, the number of days that a seat has sat open, from the date it is announced to the date that it is filled, was 254 under Clinton, 265 under Bush and 387 under Obama.
Joyner also noted the relatively low salaries paid to federal judges, who haven’t had a cost-of-living increase in years.
“Inadequate compensation directly threatens the viability of life tenure, and if tenure in office is made uncertain, the strength and independence judges need to uphold the rule of law — even when it is unpopular to do so — will be seriously eroded,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in his 2006 year-end report to Congress.
Looking over his two decades on the bench, Joyner saw no particular opinions as more noteworthy than others. Handling cases, he said, he looked only at the parties, the evidence and the law before deciding on the outcome.
He has noticed, over the last five to 10 years, an increase in the number of street crimes that are being brought to the federal court, where penalties are typically more severe than in state court. Joyner attributed the rise in those cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office seeing it as a way to take violent criminals off the street.
According to the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, lawyers describe Joyner generally as an able judge with a tendency to issue stiff sentences.
Tucker, who was a judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for more than 10 years before joining the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, was described in the same edition of the almanac as a fair sentencer.
Next week, Tucker is due to sentence Mohammad Khalid, the teenager who pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists for his involvement in a case that gained national prominence when Colleen R. LaRose, who lived in Southeastern Pennsylvania, was arrested on charges that she had planned violent jihad attacks through Internet forums where she called herself “Jihad Jane.”
Taking the post as chief is a “great honor,” Tucker said. She said she’s looking forward to it for the most part, but she’s lukewarm about the amount of administrative duties, noting that the federal post doesn’t allow for the kind of shaping of the court as in the state system.
Joyner plans to step down effective May 1 and Tucker is unsure at this point if she’ll stay in the chief’s position for the full seven-year term.
“I’ve enjoyed every day,” Tucker said of her time on the bench. “It never grows old.”