How Does an Unqualified Judge Affect Your Personal Injury Trial?

Judicial nominee Matthew Petersen had to withdraw today from consideration for the U.S. District Court after muddling through a dismal interview before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thank goodness.

Peterson squirmed when Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, asked him to define such basic legal terms as motions in limine. They are submitted just before a trial begins and limit what evidence can be considered. Senator Kennedy also asked Petersen about the well-known Daubert test and the abstention doctrine and again the potential federal judge had no clue.

Peterson admitted that he had never tried any cases in court. Instead, he had held desk jobs working for the Republican National Committee and the Federal Energy Commission. Of all possible trial lawyers who already know the complicated litigation process, how did he ever get nominated?

As Senator Kennedy said, “You can’t just walk into a federal courthouse for the very first time and say “Here I am, I think I wanna be a judge.” It just doesn’t work that way.”

What’s worse is that federal judges are given life tenure to the bench. Firing an incompetent or unethical judge is nearly impossible.

Why a qualified judge is crucial in any trial

Judge is not just a fancy title. He or she performs a crucial role in our judicial system. They wield tremendous power that can drastically change the trial’s outcome.

In a personal injury case, a judge decides which evidence is admissible and which laws are applicable. His rulings affect what the jurors see, hear and consider, and how much weight to give to the evidence. He decides whether a juror is permitted to be struck for cause and how the jurors are to be instructed in rending their verdict. He can even order a new trial if he believes mistakes were made and he can decide that the jury is hung or send them back for further deliberations.

Since most auto accident cases are heard in state court, Petersen’s nomination for the federal bench in DC would not have directly affected my clients’ cases. However the nomination of such a grossly unqualified judge concerns me. Currently, there are 142 vacancies on the federal courts. 

Appellate judges are often tapped from the distinguished pool of federal jurists,. Therefore an unqualified judge appointed to the district court today could eventually become an appellate judge tomorrow. These appellate judges regularly hear appeals where an error was alleged to have been made at the trial level.

When an unqualified judge makes bad decisions, it isn’t just bad for the parties before him, but for all of us. Our judicial system is based upon precedent, meaning other courts follow previous court opinions. When thoughtful, informed judges make decisions based on sound legal principles, precedence creates a consistent, predictable system of justice. For the most part, the system works well. However a bad decision can have a domino effect, allowing more bad rulings in subsequent cases.

The effect of appointing even one incompetent judge is enormous. I urge the administration and Senate Judiciary Committee to thoroughly vet all future judges.

We are fortunate in Tarrant and Dallas Counties to have highly qualified judges.

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