The nominee for the U.S. District Court seat in Las Cruces, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin R. Sweazea, has removed his name from consideration for the job in a letter to the White House, citing the withdrawal of support of the state’s two Democratic senators as one of the reasons.
Sweazea, in his letter to the White House last week, said he had received a telephone call from a staff member at Sen. Tom Udall’s office informing him that the state’s two senators, Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, would no longer support his nomination despite having submitted Sweazea’s name to President Donald J. Trump on their original approved list of potential nominees.
That call and the two-year process “adversely affected” his willingness to take on the job of district judge, Sweazea said.
Sweazea was designated “unanimously well qualified” for the District Court post by the American Bar Association – the ABA’s highest rating.
Staff members for both Udall and Heinrich said in a statement, “The senators informed the White House counsel’s office and Judge Sweazea that despite his qualifications, it became clear that Judge Sweazea’s confirmation would face serious hurdles in the Senate.”
They said Udall and Heinrich are working with the White House in a bipartisan way to find other qualified candidates and fill this vacancy as quickly as possible.
Before becoming a federal magistrate judge, Sweazea was a state district judge in the 7th Judicial District, which covers Catron, Socorro, Sierra and Torrance counties, one of the largest districts in the country in square miles, from 2001 to 2017.
Sweazea received high marks from attorneys and court staff in the last survey by the state’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission report before he became a federal magistrate judge.
He was nominated to replace U.S. District Judge Robert C. Brack of Las Cruces, who took senior status in July 2018.
Sweazea’s letter indicated he plans to continue as a magistrate judge.
There are three vacant federal judgeships in New Mexico, leaving the four remaining judges “drowning” in federal criminal cases, according to the judges.
Only one of those vacancies is scheduled to be filled after Sweazea withdrew his nomination, and that could put the process for that judicial slot back to square one, with the state’s two senators asking for applications.
In May, Trump nominated state District Judge Kea W. Riggs of Roswell to replace U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo, who took inactive senior status in February 2018. Riggs’ nomination was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this summer and passed on to the full Senate, but no date for a vote has been scheduled.
Udall and Heinrich’s staff members said they expect a vote on Riggs’ confirmation “soon.”
The situation is so dire that judges from New York, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, New Hampshire and Wyoming have come to New Mexico to help. They have taken over some civil cases and sentencing of defendants for illegal reentry cases in Las Cruces, Chief Judge William Johnson said.
Even 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges — Senior Court of Appeals Judges Bobby B. Baldock, Paul J. Kelly and Court of Appeals Judge Joel M. Carson — have pitched in by taking over some civil cases.
Sweazea said in his letter that he expected his nomination would proceed quickly because he had the support of both Udall and Heinrich.
Each time a hearing on his nomination was tentatively scheduled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Udall and Heinrich did not return their “blue slips,” according to Sweazea’s letter.
The blue slip process in the U.S. Senate is a procedure in which the nominee does not move to the Senate Judiciary Committee floor for a confirmation vote if a senator from his state does not return a blue slip indicating approval.
The blue slip process has been eliminated for nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court and federal Court of Appeals nominees but remains in effect for District Court nominees.
Sweazea’s letter recounts the lengthy process that took place before his nomination in June.
He filed an application with Udall’s office for the judgeship in December 2017, after Judge Brack announced his intention to take senior status.
He was interviewed by Udall and representatives of Heinrich’s office in March 2018 and was told his name would be one of four submitted to the White House.
He was interviewed by White House staff in May 2018 and didn’t hear anything official until February 2019, when he was contacted by the White House again about whether he was still interested in the job.
“I understood they (Udall and Heinrich) had been advocating for a different slate of names, which the White House ultimately declined,” he said in the letter.
At that point, Sweazea called Udall’s office and asked whether the two senators would support him if he was nominated.
In his letter, he said he was told that both senators would support his nomination.
Sweazea then contacted the White House and said he was still interested. He then underwent a background check before being nominated in June.
In September, Udall and Heinrich said in a joint statement that they were working to see the judicial vacancies filled with qualified candidates as soon as possible.