University of Denver

A Credit to the Courts: The Selection, Appointment, and Reappointment Process for Bankruptcy Judges

Former Manager, Quality Judges Initiative
Director of Special Projects

The U.S. bankruptcy courts have 351 authorized bankruptcy judgeships, along with an additional 37 retired-recalled bankruptcy judges. Despite the number of cases processed in these high-volume courts and their significance in the financial lives of individuals and businesses alike, very little is known about how the judges who preside over these courts come to be on the bench. We undertook this project to address this deficiency—to shed light on the process for selecting bankruptcy judges.

In fact, bankruptcy judges are chosen through processes that resemble those used to select some state court judges. A “merit selection panel” composed of judges, practitioners, and/or academics screens applicants, interviews potential candidates, and recommends the best qualified to the circuit’s judicial council. With or without its own screening process (depending on the circuit), the council forwards recommendations that include panel nominees to the circuit judges, who make the appointment.

Our research for this project included interviews with merit selection panel members, court of appeals judges, and bankruptcy judges, and these individuals were unanimous in praising the products of the selection process. With this report, we explore in depth the bankruptcy judge selection process and the variations in that process across the circuits. In particular, we highlight aspects that—at least in the view of participants—seem to be working well. We also identify areas where further study may be warranted, in order to ensure the ongoing efficacy of the process.