With the swearing-in last week of U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel, more than half the federal district judges sitting in Maryland now are appointees of President Barack Obama, marking a generational shift that reflects the state's evolving legal culture.
Hazel, 39, who was sworn in Tuesday, has been told he's the youngest district judge now sitting. He could be on the bench until 2040.
"I feel extremely fortunate and privileged to have received this opportunity at any age," he said in an interview.
But it's not just Hazel's youth that sets him apart. In a number of important ways, the new crop of judges marks a change from those who once were picked to don federal judges' robes in Maryland.
The lawyers who once were tapped for the federal bench in Maryland tended to come from Baltimore. Now they are likelier to have roots outside the state and to have practiced in Washington or its Maryland suburbs. The newer judges are also more likely to come from public service backgrounds.
"The composition of the court has changed markedly over the past several decades," said William Reynolds, a professor at the University of Maryland law school. "We have had wonderful judges under the old system, and the judges I know under the new system are also wonderful, but it is different."
Federal judges are nominated by the president, usually with the advice of the state's two U.S. senators, and confirmed by a vote in the Senate.
While partisan battles in Washington have left federal courts elsewhere with long-vacant seats, open spots in Maryland have been filled almost immediately, with six new judges confirmed to the District Court's 10 slots since 2010.
Politics are important at the appeals court level, where judges can set precedent. Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond law school, says Obama appointees have shifted the Fourth Circuit, once known as one of the nation's most conservative federal appeals courts, to the center.
But at the district court level, Reynolds says, judges tend to curb their political views on the bench.
"We have been lucky in Maryland and across the nation to have had federal judges who shed their background, their political beliefs and do what judges should do," he said.
Reynolds said that the shift away from judges with backgrounds in the private sector is due in large part to the fat paychecks that attorneys can make at large firms.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, alluded to that issue as she commended the nominations of Hazel and another attorney, Theodore D. Chuang, to her colleagues in the Senate.
"If these two men whom I am recommending and whom the president has nominated were in private practice, they could be making hundreds of thousands of dollars," she said. "Because these two men are duty-driven, with outstanding educations, backgrounds and experience, they have chosen public service."
Both men live in Montgomery County and will sit at the federal court in Greenbelt.
Hazel is a deacon at his Baptist church and has helped members of the congregation obtain free legal representation. Chuang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, has worked with an organization that provides legal representation to poor Asian-Americans.
Hazel was a federal prosecutor in the Washington suburbs and worked most recently in the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Chuang was a lawyer at the Department of Homeland Security and had also worked as a staff attorney in Congress.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said Hazel's long record of public service made him a good candidate for the bench.
"In his present job, Mr. Hazel helps to oversee 200 prosecutors and 200 support staffers, and he has fought tirelessly to keep our communities safe and make them safer," Cardin said this month on the Senate floor. "He wants to serve the public, and these are the types of people I would hope we would like to see in our district court."
Chuang's nomination was controversial. He helped the State Department craft its response to a congressional investigation into the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, which attracted opposition from Republican senators.
The recent appointees are less likely to have been born in Maryland. Tobias says their presence here reflects a national trend, as well as Baltimore's growing stature as "a center where, for example, people come from out of state to clerk and stay to practice."
Tobias said it is important that judges understand the local legal culture — how fast cases typically move or how often they settle — and Cardin and Mikulski have said ties to the area remain a vital qualification for a federal judge.
Hazel has worked in Maryland for 15 years. But when he was hired to be chief deputy to Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein in 2011, he had to pass the state bar exam.
"Every state has its nuances, so there was study that I engaged in, but I wouldn't say that was a steep learning curve," Hazel said. He said as a judge, he'll have areas to brush up on, but is not daunted by the prospect.
Deborah K. Chasanow, the chief judge of the court, said the new judges' colleagues will help them get up to speed quickly and fill in any gaps in their expertise. She said that having judges from different legal and intellectual backgrounds can bring new perspectives to the judiciary.
"We think it's a healthy turn of events to have new people joining us," Chasanow said. "It's energizing for everybody."
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