Once (and only once) Chief Justice Rehnquist sat by designation on a federal district court. The Fourth Circuit unanimously reversed him. And that was the end of that failed experiment.
One of the greatest attributes Justice Sotomayor brings to the bench is her time at the District Court. During her remarks at Yale Law School, she explained that when retires, she will not ride Circuit, but go back to the District Court. She relayed a conversation she had while at lunch with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kagan.
Last year I was having lunch with the Chief and Justice Kagan, and we started talking about how hard our senior justices work in the federal circuits [JB: She couldn’t possibly be talking about Justice Stevens who has not heard a single case since he stepped down]. Without thinking about it, when and if I retire, I want to go back to the district court. When asked why, I said why would I go and do what I was doing for however many years it has been. I want to go back to my first love. The district court is a very different and exciting place. For me, it was the formative experience for preparing me for the court.
I spent two years clerking in the district court, and one year on the court of appeals. I can’t stress how valuable my two years in the district court were. In addition to preparing me to handle an appellate court docket, I had a feel for how all aspects of the lower court worked. For reviewing a sentencing appeal, I had sat in on countless sentencings. For dealing with an appeal over an evidentiary issue, I was in court countless times when objections were made and resolved in a manner of seconds. For reviewing a complicated case, I was sure to limit my review to the record, and nothing more–even if the lawyers were not so constrained. This is a skill that some fresh law clerks aren’t so diligent about.
Then, Justice Sotomayor explained why a wise district court judge with the richness of her experiences would more often than not, reach a better conclusion than a circuit judge, or something like that.
I still look at cases a lot like district court judges do. I look at the facts and try to apply the facts to the law. And my colleagues only look at the law, and that is all they–sometimes they are looking at. it is a very different perspective. It is one I will never disavow because it has value. For me, my greatest time was on the district court in terms of preparing me for the Court.
I will note that while Sotomayor said this, both Alito and Thomas were nodding their head in agreement. There is no doubt Sotomayor pays more attention to the facts. I’ve heard that she asks her clerks to read the *entire* record, and this preparation shows during oral arguments, and in her opinions, which are very factually-intensive.
Though, as Paul Clement noted, the Justices really don’t care about the client.
“At the end of the day, they really don’t care about your case or your client,” he said. “They are really using your case as a vehicle to develop a broader rule on an issue of importance, and I think that is something that one always has to keep in mind.”
You are just a vehicle.