Two of El Paso’s three U.S. District Court judges are stepping back on their duties, and how quickly President Joe Biden can replace them may hinge on the outcome of Tuesday’s Senate runoff election in Georgia.

U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo took senior status on Dec. 1, and U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama will do so on May 27, 2023, according to judicial records.

Federal judges who take senior status can reduce their workload, though they are not required to do so. Moving to senior status creates a vacancy that can be filled with a presidential nomination and Senate approval.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said Montalvo and Guaderrama built a legacy on the bench.

“It’s my hope that whoever comes in after them will provide the same kind of high-quality public service to our community and our region,” she said.

Montalvo, 66, was nominated to the bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush. He presided over a number of public corruption cases after the FBI raided the El Paso County Courthouse in 2007.

“Judge Montalvo, of course, played an instrumental role during what was a very challenging period in El Paso history where our community was battling deep-rooted corruption,” said Escobar, who was a county commissioner at the time of the raid and later served as county judge. “And I remember sitting in his court during some of those hearings and feeling an immense sense of gratitude that I knew that we were in good hands with someone who would be fair and would rule on the facts.” 

Guaderrama, 68, was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2011. He currently is presiding over the federal hate crimes case of the man accused in the murder of 23 people in a mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in 2019. Guaderrama can continue presiding over the case after taking senior status.

U.S. District Judges Frank Montalvo, left, and David Guaderrama are taking senior status.

“He has a remarkable work ethic and is a man of very high integrity, and he will be very much missed. But he’s definitely provided our community with tremendous public service, and I’m very grateful to him,” Escobar said.

Montalvo and Guaderrama could not be reached for comment.

If Montalvo’s successor is not appointed and confirmed before Guaderrama also takes senior status, Kathleen Cardone will be the sole remaining U.S. District Court judge remaining in El Paso. David Briones has been a senior district judge in El Paso since 2009.

What federal judges do

Federal judges oversee trials of criminal and civil cases that involve alleged violations of federal law. In El Paso, federal judges often deal with immigration and drug smuggling cases.

The federal court system is divided into 94 districts, with 673 district court judgeships authorized by Congress. El Paso is in the Western District of Texas, which stretches from El Paso to Waco and covers much of the Texas-Mexico border. The district has courtrooms in nine cities.  

El Paso has long had four federal district court judges, but that changed after the 2021 death of District Judge Philip Martinez.

The judges of the Western District of Texas decided to move Martinez’s vacant seat to Del Rio. Almost two years after his death, Biden has not yet nominated a replacement, an illustration of the challenges of moving judicial nominations through a Senate that has been evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats.

Why Tuesday’s Georgia election matters

Federal courts currently have 87 vacancies – including the benches held by Martinez and Montalvo – and Biden has nominated replacements for only 43 of them. Another 30 upcoming vacancies have been announced – including Guaderrama’s – and Biden has only made nominations in 11 of those.

Judicial nominees are initially vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the committee’s recommendation is usually – though not always – a prerequisite for Senate confirmation.

The Senate has been evenly divided the past two years – 48 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them, and 50 Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaker if necessary. As a result, committee assignments are evenly divided between the parties.

The Senate Judiciary Committee currently has 11 Democratic members and 11 Republicans, including Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas. If all 11 Republicans vote together, they can effectively block a judicial nominee.

For the new Congress that convenes in January, 50 members of the Democratic caucus and 49 Republicans have been elected so far. The sole remaining seat is in Georgia, which will be decided Tuesday in a runoff between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker.

If Walker wins, the Senate will remain evenly divided, meaning the Judiciary Committee will again be evenly divided.

If Warnock wins, the Democratic caucus will have 51 seats and the Republicans 49. Democrats will have more seats on the Judiciary Committee than Republicans, meaning united Democrats could push through nominees even if they are unanimously rejected by the GOP.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso

The makeup of the Senate – and the Judiciary Committee – could determine how long it takes for El Paso to get replacements for its two judges taking senior status, Escobar said. A Walker win could mean that the confirmation could be delayed until after the 2024 presidential election, she said.

“If Senator Warnock wins and if the administration can quickly vet some nominees and move forward with appointments, I am hoping that it will be the Biden administration that will appoint new jurists in our region,” said Escobar, who is supporting Warnock.

She said El Paso has other issues at stake in the outcome of Tuesday’s runoff, including whether Congress can pass an omnibus budget bill before the end of the year. She said Republicans have been delaying action because they think a Walker victory could give them leverage in negotiations to finish a deal before the new Congress takes office on Jan. 3.

“In El Paso, we very much depend on the federal budget for everything from Fort Bliss to funding of federal personnel. So there’s a lot that I’m watching, in particular in terms of the financial impact on our community,” Escobar said. 

Disclosure: U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama presided over a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore against the Department of Homeland Security. The lawsuit was settled before trial.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.