May 8, 2023
By William Cracraft
Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Mary H. Murguia addresses lawyers and law students attending the “Roadways to the Bench” event in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 3, 2023.
Almost 350 lawyers and law students attended meetings across the Ninth Circuit designed to educate and encourage them to consider a judicial career.
The federal judiciary, led by the Judicial Conference of the United States Committees on the Administration of the Bankruptcy System and the Magistrate Judges System, held the second iteration of the national diversity event for law students and attorneys, “Roadways to the Bench: Who Me? A Bankruptcy or Magistrate Judge?”
Roadways to the Bench is a national effort to draw the best and brightest to the judiciary by introducing them to the culture and to judges who can answer questions about what it is like to take the bench.
The event, held nationwide at 38 venues, including eight locations in the Ninth Circuit, on April 3, started with a national panel discussion about panelists’ respective roadways to the federal bench. The discussion was livestreamed from Washington, D.C., to 37 locations in 12 circuits.
The panel, moderated by Fifth Circuit Judge Carl E. Stewart, comprised Chief District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, Southern District of New York, Second Circuit, who was a bankruptcy judge from 1996 to 2000; Sixth Circuit Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis, who served as a district judge in Eastern District of Michigan from 2019 to 2022 and as a magistrate judge from 2016 to 2019; Magistrate Judge Mustafa T. Kasubhai, Oregon District, Ninth Circuit; and Bankruptcy Judge Kesha Lynn Tanabe, Minnesota District, Eighth Circuit.
During his remarks on the national panel, Judge Kasubhai emphasized two critical considerations as people chart their course for judicial service. “First, give yourself permission to see yourself as a judge,” he said. “Don’t let anyone hold back your personal capacity to see it for yourself. Then, make sure you tell trusted friends and mentors this is something you want to pursue.” Judge Kasubhai emphasized how important it is to exercise personal agency. He continued, “For lawyers who are not traditionally represented on the bench, don’t wait for someone to actively recruit you. You will need to move the ball yourself at first, and that is okay.”
Local gatherings, hosted by magistrate and bankruptcy judges from the local circuit, then moved to local roundtable sessions where visitors, limited to current law students and attorneys, interacted with the judges.
Trial attorney Edward K. Bernatavicius, Office of the U.S. Trustee, Region 14 in Phoenix, has been an attorney for about 23 years and has practiced bankruptcy law “almost my entire career,” he said. He attended the event-his second because he “always loved leadership, service and solving problems for others. I think being a bankruptcy judge encapsulates these three values at the highest level and would love to do this in the next step in my career for not only me, but the bankruptcy bar and public who I would serve,” he added.
“Even though this was my second time attending I still learned new information,” Bernatavicius continued. “Hearing the panel of judges talk in the opening 45-minute discussion regarding their stories and backgrounds is always helpful and energizing. After all, they have achieved what I hope to someday achieve and it is really helpful to hear their stories and how they made it to the bench.” He noted the roundtables with the judges were invaluable. “We talked about their own paths to the judiciary, how to improve on our individual applications, our interviews, careers, etcetera. As I am physically challenged and use a wheelchair, one day it would be helpful to hear from a judge who is also physically challenged and hear and how that person navigates the judicial world and any of the challenges it may present.”
Chief Bankruptcy Judge August Landis, Nevada District, hosted a gathering in Las Vegas, drawing in nearly 60 visitors and providing perspective from 13 judges. “Ultimately,” he said, “there was one judge for every five non-judicial attendees during the roundtable session.
“My experience was that about two-thirds of the non-judicial attendees were already interested in pursuing a position as a federal jurist. Several attendees indicated that they enjoyed the AO panel, and in particular hearing from established and nationally recognized judges about their paths to the federal bench. The AO panel also afforded a nice introductory segue to the discussions at the local roundtable session in Las Vegas.
“The roundtable discussions tended to focus on the practical aspects of becoming a judge-i.e., how to find out when and where there are openings, what is the application process like, how should they hone their professional skills to be well positioned to pursue a judicial opening, is it an enjoyable job, and so on,” said Judge Landis. “The Roadways to the Bench event provides the kind of information that is helpful to any interested candidate as they consider whether to pursue or not pursue a career on the federal bench.”
Bankruptcy Judge Magdalena Reyes Bordeaux attended the 2019 Roadways to the Bench event and credits it with helping her attain her judgeship. “I think the biggest takeaway from the event was to just apply,” she said. “Prior to attending the Roadways Event, I thought that I might not be seriously considered for a bankruptcy judgeship because I had not worked at a Chapter 11 firm. However, after attending the Roadways event I felt my experience could be an asset, especially since over 98% of cases filed in the Central District are consumer bankruptcy cases.”
Judge Bordeaux has found her judgeship to be very rewarding. “It has exceeded my expectations,” she said. “I get to work on interesting issues, collaborate with great colleagues, and continue my efforts in making the courts accessible to all parties.
“It was so inspiring that judges took time out of their busy schedules to attend and encourage attorneys to apply to be a judge. I hope to do the same for others, now that I am a judge, at future Roadways to the Bench Events,” she said.
Bernatavicius noted the value of the event: “I believe such events are critical in establishing pipelines of diversity and roadways to the bench for a more inclusive bench,” he said. “The earlier in one’s career such roadways and mentorship are established, the better the chance to build on our already amazing judiciary. I would like to thank all the judges who took their time to be a part of this event.”
Special thanks to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Madeleine C. Wanslee, District of Arizona, for her help with this article.