3rd Circuit, Benchslaps, Federal Judges, Musical Chairs, Old People

Musical Chairs: Judge Fullam, Benchslapped and Elderly, Is Stepping Down

Time to put down the gavel and hang up the robe.

We recently covered the Third Circuit’s benchslap of Judge John Fullam, an 89-year-old judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In his opinion in United States v. Higdon, issuing a writ of mandamus and directing that the case mishandled by Judge Fullam be reassigned on remand, Chief Judge Theodore McKee had some harsh words for the aged jurist: “Neither this court, nor any other court, can tolerate a situation where a judge decides to follow his/her own custom and concepts of justice rather than the precedent of the applicable appellate court or the United States Supreme Court. Ours is a nation of laws, not judges.”

At the same time, Chief Judge McKee had some kind words for Judge Fullam, praising him as “a very experienced and hard working jurist [who] has devoted decades of service to the federal bench.” In the comments to our post, some readers interpreted the combination of statements — criticism for Judge Fullam’s mishandling of one case, but compliments for his “decades of service” — as the Third Circuit trying to nudge Judge Fullam into retirement.

Well, it seems to have worked — and it’s apparently the culmination of a long-running effort to get Judge Fullam off the bench….

Yesterday Judge Fullam announced his retirement, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer:

U.S. District Judge John Fullam, who presided over such notable cases as the Abscam political-corruption probe and the landmark bankruptcy of Penn Central, said Wednesday that he planned to step down.

“I plan to retire as of April 15,” said Fullam, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.

“I will no longer be taking cases,” he told The Inquirer, “but I will finish up what I have on my plate.”

Asked about his retirement plans, Fullam quipped: “I hope to continue to breathe. After all, I’ll be 90 in September.”

The Inquirer article mentions the Higdon case and the Third Circuit’s benchslap of Judge Fullam. The discreet Judge Fullam declined to comment on it: “I’m not going to stir up trouble.”

This isn’t the first time Judge Fullam has created “trouble,” at least in the eyes of the Third Circuit. One reader directed our attention to the Third Circuit’s prior benchslap of him in United States v. Brunson, in which the court also issued a writ of mandamus and ordered the case reassigned to a new judge on remand. In her opinion, Judge Jane Roth referred to “[g]rave errors” committed by Judge Fullam. Although she praised him as “a long-standing and respected judge” (read: super-old), Judge Roth went on to describe his “pattern of unreasonable decisions” — demonstrated by citation to lengthy portions of trial transcript revealing Judge Fullam as misguided on the law and crotchety in demeanor.

Unlike Higdon, Brunson was unpublished (or “non-precedential,” in Third Circuit-speak). One wonders whether, after Judge Fullam didn’t get the message from Brunson, the Third Circuit decided to publish in Higdon, to create a more public shaming effect.

As one source told us, judges of the Third Circuit and E.D. Pa. been trying to ease Judge Fullam off the bench for quite some time:

Chief Judge McKee and the Chief Judge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania have been trying to “resolve the issue” in an un-embarrassing way to both of their respective courts. E.g., they are exerting pressure upon him to retire. He is resisting, and the behind-closed-doors conversations are, by all accounts, heated.

Well, it looks like they finally succeeded. We wish Judge Fullam a healthy and happy retirement.

Earlier: Quote of the Day: Oh, precedent is overrated.

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