WASHINGTON – If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Gonzaga University law professor Rosanna Peterson would become the first woman to serve on Eastern Washington’s U.S. District Court bench.
President Barack Obama announced Peterson’s nomination Tuesday for the vacancy left after Judge Fred Van Sickle’s move to senior status last year. She was chosen for the Eastern District, which encompasses Spokane and 19 other counties, from three finalists selected by a bipartisan committee.
“I’m very honored and extremely appreciative of the vote of confidence from President Obama,” said Peterson, who found out she was nominated after a 6 a.m. phone call from Sen. Patty Murray’s office.
Peterson, who has served as president of the Federal Bar Association for Eastern Washington and the Woman Lawyers State Bar Association, was among more than two-dozen applicants for the lifetime position last November, and the only woman among the three finalists. It’s been a longtime hope and goal, Peterson said.
The state’s U.S. senators signaled approval at the selection. Sen. Maria Cantwell called the nomination of a woman to the court “historic,” and Murray praised the state’s selection commission.
“I’m proud to support her and I’m proud that our bipartisan Washington State Selection Committee process continues to produce exceptional candidates,” Murray said in a statement.
Selection processes similar to Washington’s are becoming more common around the country, replacing the older tradition where a state’s senators informally choose nominees to send to the president, said University of Richmond Professor Carl Tobias, a judicial selection expert. The nomination also further demonstrates the Obama administration’s push to nominate more women and minorities to federal judgeships, he said.
“I’m not at all surprised that a woman was nominated,” Tobias said. “There are many districts that have not had a woman on the bench before, and to some extent, the White House is trying to rectify that.”
The American Bar Association, which rates judicial appointment candidates before the president announces a nomination, unanimously found Peterson “qualified.” Of the 23 nominations received by the Senate Judiciary Committee this year, only seven, including Peterson, were rated below “unanimously well qualified.”
The ABA generally gives higher rankings to sitting justices, Tobias said, which may well explain Peterson’s lower ranking.
There is a backlog of judge nominations waiting on confirmation from the full Senate, with 20 nominees ahead of Peterson, so Tobias doubts her confirmation vote will come this year.
Earl Martin, former dean of Gonzaga’s School of Law and now a GU’s acting academic vice president, said the university has been anticipating losing Peterson to the federal bench, and called her appointment “bittersweet.”
“You hate to lose her, but at the same time this is wonderful for her and frankly wonderful for the institution,” he said. “It’s a great honor for the place.”