President Barack Obama this week renominated longtime Sacramento federal magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd to become a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno.
Last November, Obama nominated Drozd to fill the seat of U.S. District Court Judge Anthony W. Ishii, who took senior status two years ago and will reduce his work to about a quarter of his pre-retirement level when — and if — Drozd wins U.S. Senate confirmation. A year ago, Ishii cut back to half-time.
When Obama nominated Drozd, 59, there were several judicial nominees ahead of him awaiting Senate approval. Many, unlike Drozd, had already made their way through the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. The Senate, then controlled by Democrats, adjourned last month without taking action on Drozd’s confirmation. His nomination died with the year’s end, and with a new Congress convening, Obama had to renominate him.
A big difference between this year and last is that Republicans now control the Senate. Drozd is a Democrat, though supporters said he has extensive judicial experience and would likely not be seen as a controversial nominee, which should help his prospects. Still, if the relationship between Senate Republicans and Obama sours, it is unclear what might happen with all of his judicial nominees.
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Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond school of law in Virginia who specializes in the study of judicial selection, doesn’t think Drozd will have a problem being confirmed — even with Republicans controlling the Senate.
California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as Senate Judiciary Committee members from both parties, are aware of the caseload crunch for judges at Fresno’s federal courthouse, he said. In addition, he said Drozd is well qualified and has a long record as a magistrate judge.
Taken together, he said that even in the current partisan political climate, that should mean Drozd’s approval should be straightforward and non-controversial.
“The number (of judges Obama) renominated is not that large, so I’m cautiously optimistic he could be confirmed by this spring,” Tobias said. “It looks pretty good.”
It can’t come soon enough for officials at Fresno’s overburdened federal court, who just want a replacement seated.
“The first step toward confirmation is renomination by the president for the review by the new Senate,” Fresno-based U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill said. “Now we hope and need Congress to move with great vigor this nomination. Those who depend on federal judges to hear their cases deserve no less.”
It has been more than three years since the White House learned that Ishii was moving toward retirement.
As the Fresno federal courthouse waits, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill continues to toil under one of the nation’s largest caseloads, which exceeds 1,000 active cases. The local caseload is so big that Sacramento’s federal court has had to step in to help with civil cases. The magistrate judges have also been able to help with civil cases when both parties consent to them, as opposed to district judges hearing cases.
Ishii told the Obama administration in November 2011 that he was going to take senior status, a heads-up for officials to start seeking a replacement. He officially moved to senior status — a move akin to retirement, but one that allows a judge to continue hearing cases — more than two years ago.
The judicial position pays $199,100 annually.
For 14 years, Drozd was in private practice, primarily criminal defense, first in San Francisco and then in Sacramento. He began his legal career in Sacramento as a law clerk from 1980 to 1982 for now-retired U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, a central figure in instituting the federally mandated San Joaquin River restoration plan. Karlton stepped down last September after 35 years on the federal bench.
Drozd received his law degree with honors in 1980 from the UCLA School of Law. He earned an undergraduate degree magna cum laude in 1977 from San Diego State University.