U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen aced a review of his qualifications to become Roanoke’s next federal judge, according to a report by the State Bar of Virginia.
Reviewers rated the 42-year-old Cullen as “highly qualified” for a district judgeship by a 6-0 vote. He is under consideration for a vacancy in the U.S. District Court in Roanoke.
The panel found Cullen “humble, down to earth, relatable and grounded,” according to a six-page report made public Friday. Peer assessments collected by the panel described him as “intelligent, bright, measured, polite and never belligerent to opposing counsel,” the report said.
Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine asked for the state bar’s assessment. The senators recommended two other candidates to the White House in November 2018, but neither was picked and the process was restarted. Cullen had not yet applied.
The workload of the federal court serving the Western District of Virginia is being handled by three full-fledged judges — while four are authorized — plus three magistrate judges and several senior status judges, but the understaffing has gone on too long, the senators said Oct. 23. The vacancy is the seat of U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad, who declared senior status in December 2017. Senior status enables a judge to continue working while transitioning to retirement and permits the court to bring in another judge.
Kaine and Warner pledged to fill the vacancy “as soon as possible while ensuring a thorough review process” involving both an independent panel of lawyers and the state bar’s Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee, the senators said. They acknowledged receipt of the state bar’s report but had not acted on it yet as of Friday.
Only the state bar, an arm of state government, historically has made public its assessments of would-be judges. Its process involved a background review, interviews with people who know Cullen professionally and an interview with Cullen, which took place Wednesday.
“We make a broad inquiry,” said Bevin Alexander, chair of the Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee.
After the review ends, the senators ordinarily would submit their recommendation or recommendations to the White House.
It would then fall to the White House to nominate its preferred candidate and to the Senate to vote on the nomination. Should he be recommended and then nominated, Cullen eventually would appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a public hearing, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
U.S. attorney is a common stepping stone to a U.S. district court judgeship, according to Tobias. However, Tobias said Cullen’s review process so far differs from other judicial evaluations he has seen in that it appears to lack input from the Virginia Women Attorneys Association; the Old Dominion Bar Association, representing African American lawyers; and similar special-interest groups. “It wasn’t a full process,” Tobias said.
In addition, Tobias noted that Cullen sat down with six Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee members, far less than the full 15-member committee, he said.
Roanoke attorney Linda Frith, a Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee member, participated in Cullen’s interview.
“His interview went very well and the members of the committee were impressed with Thomas and his background and how he handled himself,” she said. “I don’t think it would have made a difference if we had 10 people there.”
Cullen has been a lawyer for 15 years. He began his career clerking for a federal district judge and then a federal appellate judge. He spent seven years as a federal prosecutor and five years in private practice, and started as U.S. attorney in March 2018. Among his high-profile cases, he participated in the criminal prosecutions related to the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. A pending criminal indictment he oversaw accuses alleged gang members in Roanoke of committing two murders.
In speaking to the state bar panel, Cullen said he hadn’t considered seeking the Western District judgeship when the job first opened because he was in the process of seeking the U.S. attorney’s position, “a job he considered a professional pinnacle and honor,” the panel’s report said. However, becoming a judge had occurred to him since he clerked for two judges, had judges as mentors and “respected the intellectual and professional challenges of a federal judgeship,” the report said.
Cullen told the panel that being harshly criticized by a federal judge earlier this year was “devastating,” according to the report.
Though he disagreed with the action, Cullen recognized Judge James Jones’ authority to deliver the written rebuke he received for requiring state troopers in civilian clothes to leave the trial of a fellow state trooper, the report said.
In addition, Cullen said he learned lessons from a recent Danville gang prosecution that was damaged by the prosecution’s failure to share discovery with the defense, for which blame rested with a state commonwealth’s attorney on the federal prosecution team. The panel report didn’t say what the lessons were.
Cullen declined to comment.