WASHINGTON — If the extensive questionnaire wasn't daunting enough, there was the prospect of background investigations, congressional scrutiny and the potential for partisan political fights.
Despite all that, about 20 judges, public officials and private attorneys put their names forward to be the newest member of Nebraska's federal bench.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon is planning to take senior status in October. That will create a vacancy to be filled by President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
In such situations, great deference is typically paid to the state's U.S. senators, even if they are not of the president's party.
Sens. Deb Fischer and Mike Johanns, both Republicans, had asked those interested in the job to fill out a standard Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire by Jan. 10.
The questionnaire requests just about everything the applicant has ever written, ranging from law review articles to letters to the editor. It asks for transcripts of public remarks, as well as materials on any classes taught.
The resulting paperwork avalanche surprised even Johanns, who told The World-Herald that a stack of boxes full of applications is now crammed into his chief of staff's office on Capitol Hill.
“I was kind of stunned by the amount of material that was submitted,” he said.
Johanns predicted that it will take some months to sift through all of that before submitting any recommendations to the White House. Fischer said both senators want to make sure they find the right person.
“I know we have a lot of good candidates who applied,” Fischer said. “I really appreciate, really, people putting their names forward. They open themselves up to a lot when you apply for a judgeship, and especially if you're nominated and then have to go to a committee.”
Nebraska's legal community has been abuzz with rumors of who is angling for the position.
Those in private practice have a significant interest in keeping mum about their applications. When word gets out that you're gunning for a judgeship, clients are less likely to solicit your services.
Just ask Deb Gilg, who worked both as a private attorney and a prosecutor before landing her current job as U.S. attorney for Nebraska.
“It decimates your private practice to go through the process, because the clients you have don't know how much longer you're going to be there,” Gilg said. “(For) any new clients, you feel like you have an obligation to tell them this may happen.”
As a federal official now, Gilg no longer has to worry about scaring off clients — and she readily confirmed to The World-Herald that she has applied for the judgeship.
She said she thinks her diverse background would serve her well on the bench, given that she has experience in private practice, as a prosecutor and for the past few years on the federal level.
She has long been active in the Democratic Party. She worked as a campaign volunteer for former Sen. Ben Nelson, and she supported Obama's presidential campaign.
Having already gone through the vetting process could give her an edge, although White House officials also would have to weigh the fact that picking her would require them to replace her as U.S. attorney.
Douglas County District Judge Gary Randall also confirmed that he has applied for the spot.
He described moving to the federal bench as an appealing next chapter in his career after 16 years as a judge: “This would be an exciting thing to do.”
Denise Frost was one private attorney willing to confirm that she has applied for the spot. She noted her diverse background that includes handling criminal and civil cases in state and federal court, in a mix of rural and urban parts of Nebraska.
Frost praised the quality of the pool of applicants, based on the names she has heard.
“This is a top-notch group of lawyers,” she said. “This is the cream of the crop, and ... it's exciting because that means whoever is selected, ultimately, that's good news for Nebraska.”
The quality of the pool aside, judicial appointments have been known to make handy political footballs. Nominees advance only if both of their home state senators give their approval on so-called “blue slips.”
In a number of other states, Republican senators have withheld those blue slips on pending nominees, leading to lengthy vacancies.
Gilg predicted that the process in Nebraska would go smoother, however. “I think that our senators from Nebraska understand the importance of filling the vacancy on the federal bench in a timely manner,” she said.