Picking next federal judge remains murky, no timeline yet

by Mike Donoghue, Vermont News First, Vermont Business Magazine Three of the seven lawyers appointed to help find a replacement for Federal Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford have never appeared in US District Court in Vermont for any kind of cases, according to public records.

And two of the lawyers on the screening committee are not even admitted to practice law in the federal courts in Vermont, the public records show.

Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group in Montpelier, Xusana Davis, executive director of Racial Equity for the state, and Barbara Prine, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid in Burlington are all listed as have zero cases in federal court, according to its computer system known as PACER.

Davis and Burns also are unauthorized to practice in the federal court in Vermont because they have not gone through the admission process, records show. Prine is admitted to the federal bar in Vermont.

Burns, Davis and Prine did not respond to phone messages left seeking comments for the news story.

Vermont News First was told Burns, Davis and Prine were each placed on the screening committee by US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

Repeated efforts to seek comment from Sanders' office since last Friday have been unsuccessful.

The office of Senator Peter Welch, D-Vermont, said all communications about the screening process to replace Crawford is being handled by Sanders' office.

Meanwhile, three other lawyers on the judicial screening committee have been very active in federal court. They are David Silver, a Bennington defense lawyer, Lisa Shelkrot, a Burlington lawyer, and Shap Smith, a former Speaker of the Vermont House who works at Dinse, a Burlington law firm. 

The busiest among the committee is Shelkot, who has been involved in 187 criminal and civil federal cases in Vermont.

Smith has appeared in 83 federal cases in his career – all on the civil side, the records show.

Silver has been involved in 47 federal civil and criminal cases in his career in Vermont, the records note.

The last member of the screening committee, Eleanor "Ella" Spottswood, has been involved in 11 cases in federal court while serving with the Vermont Attorney General's office. She left the AG's office late last year to become a senior staff attorney with Planned Parenthood of America in New York.

Spottswood is a former New Hampshire public defender and is chair of the Vermont Judicial Nominating Board, which helps screen state judges.

Nobody was selected for the screening committee from the offices that deal with the federal judges in Vermont on a day-to-day basis. They include the court clerk's office, the US Marshal, US Probation, US Attorney and the Federal Defender.

Sanders and Welch have reportedly received the names of at least 3 judicial applicants that were found worthy of the political appointment by the federal screening committee.

Senators Sanders and Welch, along with their staffs, have been conducting interviews in recent weeks, but no names have been released, a spokesman for Sanders previously said.

In the past, staff members in Vermont and Washington from the Senate offices did preliminary interviews, followed by the eventual interviews by each senator.

It is unclear when Vermont residents will be asked to offer public comments on the finalists for the lifetime appointment.

The federal judgeship, which pays $232,600 annually, is considered lucrative in Vermont and normally draws applications from state judges and many top lawyers.

President Joe Biden's White House is under the gun to try to fill as many judicial posts as possible in case he needs to vacate the office after the November election.

Sanders and Welch are expected to forward two names to Biden, who will make a formal nomination for one of them. The nominee must be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and eventually the full Senate.

Welch was added to the Senate Judiciary Committee to replace longtime US Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, who retired in January 2023.

Biden said when he was running for president said he would be looking for women, people of color and other minorities to fill federal judgeships.

Crawford, 69, will take Senior Status in mid-August – which allows him to preside over a limited caseload, including continuing with an elaborate cross-country murder for hire case from the Northeast Kingdom. A jury trial is scheduled for the final two defendants in September. It will be in either Burlington or Rutland.

Crawford has served on the federal bench since 2014. The new judge’s primary assignment would be at the US District Courthouse on West Street in Rutland.

Crawford and Burlington lawyer John Pacht, who later was named a state judge, were the two names forwarded in 2014 by the advisory committee that eventually went to the White House for the last district court vacancy.

Extra secrecy has been added this time to the judicial selection process, including committee members being told to refrain from making public comments.

Sanders' office also said it would not say who selected each of the seven members to the screening committee. However the Vermont Bar Association publicly recruited from its members and the leadership picked Shelkrot and Silver, a spokesman said.

Further interviews by Vermont News First indicated Burns, Davis and Prine were picked by Sanders and that Smith and Spottswood were offered by Welch.

Sanders, as the new senior senator for Vermont, is in charge of the judicial process for the first time following the retirement of Leahy. 

Leahy used a slightly different process, including having a 9-member screening committee. Leahy, who served in the senate for 48 years, used an equal system with three selections each made by his office, the junior senator and the state bar association.

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