The Yale Law Journal

April 2020

Island Judges

Federal CourtsLegal HistoryU.S. Territories

abstract. This Note explores the persistent differences in status among federal district judges in U.S. territories. Beginning with Congress’s decision to extend life tenure to federal judges in Puerto Rico in 1966, the Note traces the evolution of local and federal courts in U.S. territories over the past half century. Although universally counted within the ninety-four districts of the Article III system, the federal district courts in Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are not staffed by Article III judges. In some cases, these federal district judges can be replaced at any moment. This regime, once defended on account of the distinguishing jurisdictional features of federal courts overseas, has outgrown its prevailing justifications. Divorced from its once-plausible logic of necessity and institutional development, the present status of federal district judges in the territories is an emerging problem in federal judicial independence that exposes the federal courts to charges of exceptionalism and political interference. Focusing on judicial administration, this Note challenges the notion that all federal district judges are created equal, highlighting an underinterrogated space in the discourse on U.S. empire: the Judicial Conference of the United States.

author. Yale Law School, J.D. expected 2020; Yale College, B.A. 2013. I am grateful first and foremost to Aziz Rana for his guidance, example, and unremitting encouragement. I also owe thanks to Daniel Immerwahr, Gustavo Gelpí, Alex Munson, José Cabranes, Kate Stith, Guido Calabresi, Ashraf Ahmed, and numerous others for engaging with this idea and challenging my thinking from a variety of angles. For their hard work and helpful edits, I am indebted to the First-Year Editors and the Notes & Comments Committee of the Yale Law Journal, especially Mary Charlotte Carroll and Simon Brewer. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund, Guam Department of Chamorro Affairs, and District Court of Guam staff for enabling archival research that informed this project.