In the wake of last month’s retirement of Waco’s federal judge, the presidents of two local bar associations have launched campaigns seeking to replace him with a Central Texas resident.
The presidents of the Waco-McLennan County Bar Association and the McLennan County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association each have written letters to the White House, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia requesting that the vacancy left by the retirement of U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. be filled with a local resident.
Garcia, chief judge of the sprawling Western District of Texas, which includes Waco, said U.S. District Judge Alia Moses, of Del Rio, has expressed interest in transferring to Waco to fill Smith’s position. But Garcia said Tuesday he has not received any applications from judges wishing to transfer to other locations.
If Moses were to transfer to Waco, the judicial vacancy would be in Del Rio.
Moses did not return a phone message left at her chambers in Del Rio on Tuesday.
Patricia Wilson, a Baylor University law professor and president of the Waco-McLennan County Bar Association, and Nora Farah, president of the local criminal defense bar, both said they are aware that at least one judge has expressed interest in transferring to Waco. That is why they said their associations thought it important to write letters endorsing a local resident as Smith’s successor.
“The bar association believes strongly in the importance and the value of having someone from this community appointed to serve this community,” Wilson said Tuesday.
Federal judges are appointed by the president. With the upcoming election, officials say it could be some time before judicial vacancies are filled, including a place on the U.S. Supreme Court left vacant since the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in February.
Cruz and Cornyn have established a Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee, a panel of attorneys in Texas, to review candidates for judicial appointments. The senators make recommendations for appointments to the president. They also can block potential nominees.
Farah said the criminal defense bar thinks it is important for a local resident to get the appointment because he or she would be familiar with the local bar, the Waco U.S. Attorney’s Office, local rules of the court and the overall system.
“We know local attorneys and local judges. We have a working relationship with them,” Farah said. “We know the system, how it works. We won’t take a particular position on a particular person, but we do think it is important that the person selected is from our local area.”
In her letter, Wilson said “appointing an attorney who has existing ties to Central Texas would ensure the resolution of cases by a judge who already has familiarity with the area and its unique challenges. Judge Smith served for the Waco division for more than 30 years, and our area benefited from having a judge with local ties.”
Officials say U.S. Magistrate Jeffrey C. Manske, of Waco, is exploring the possibility of seeking the appointment. There is sure to be great interest among local attorneys seeking the job, which carries a lifetime appointment.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District, has been coming to Waco to hear Smith’s cases since December 2015, when the Judicial Council of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court reprimanded Smith for groping a court clerk in his chambers and lying to investigators about it. The council also stripped Smith from hearing any new cases for at least a year and ordered him to undergo counseling.
Smith was the subject of a renewed investigation when he retired last month, ending the judicial council’s jurisdiction over the former judge.
Smith, 75, a Republican who lost elections for 54th State District judge and McLennan County judge, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
After Smith’s retirement, Garcia assigned Pitman to handle the Waco federal court docket, which includes three pending Title IX lawsuits against Baylor University filed by at least 10 women who allege Baylor officials mishandled their sexual assault allegations.