McKee’s early end to Third Circuit chief judgeship: collegiality over partisanship? [updated after speaking to Judge McKee]

When Third Circuit Judge Theodore McKee stepped down from his role as Chief Judge on October 1, he ended his chief judgeship early. Judge McKee’s term as chief would have run through 2017.

What’s the actual reason he stepped down early? I don’t know. The court’s press release didn’t mention that he was giving up his role before his term was over, let alone say why. And I don’t have any inside information. But I’ve got a theory.

[UPDATE: After I posted this, Judge McKee confirmed that my theory about why he stepped down early was “exactly dead on.”]

First, some background. Circuit-chief-judgeship-selection procedure is set by statute, 28 USC § 45. To become chief, you have to be under 65; your term runs for 7 years or until you turn 70, whichever comes first. McKee became chief in 2010 and was born in 1947, so his term was set to end in 2017.

Did he end early due to health? Because he wanted to scale back? Because he’s tired of the extra administrative role? I’ve seen nothing to support any of those hypotheses. The court’s press release says he’s not going senior, and his recent creation of the eyewitness-identification task force shows how comfortable he still was wielding the chief’s power.

But McKee’s decision to step down in 2016 had this clear consequence: it allowed Chief Judge Brooks Smith to become chief. Smith turns 65 in December, so, if McKee had served out his term into 2017, Smith would have been too old to become chief. Judge Michael Chagares would have been next in line, instead.

An aside:  am I suggesting McKee gamed his retirement date to keep Chagares from succeeding him? No. Chagares will still be chief (assuming he remains on the court and wants to be chief). If Smith serves his full term, he will be chief until 2021 when he turns 70. In 2021 Chagares will be only 59, so he’d still be eligible to serve a full seven-year term.

So why did McKee step down early? My guess [now confirmed] is he did it simply so that Smith could have the honor of serving as circuit chief. Third Circuit collegiality, pure and simple.

Okay, so now let’s look at all this through a partisan lens. McKee’s decision to step down early is remarkable in this poisonously partisan era, and not just because he’s a liberal and Smith was nominated by President George W. Bush. Here’s how the circuit’s chief judgeship succession will now play out in the years ahead, assuming everyone stays on the court, serves as chief when eligible, and serves a full term:

2016 – 2021  Smith

2021 – 2028  Chagares

2028 – 2035  Hardiman

2035 – ?   [to be determined — no judge who’s currently on the court]

So Republican-nominated judges can be chief until 2035, and likely longer than that if the next president is Republican.

Now, look at how the succession would have played out (same assumptions as above) had McKee served out his term:

2017 – 2024  Chagares

2024 – 2031  Hardiman

2031 – 2038  Krause

A Dem-appointed judge would have taken over in 2031, regardless who wins this November. GOP-nominated judges would have been able to be circuit chief for ‘only’ 14 years, not 19-plus.

Now, that’s all pretty deep in the weeds, obviously, but it demonstrates a basic point: McKee’s decision to step down early didn’t just benefit Smith, it also benefits Republicans. I doubt Judge McKee gave a damn.

If I’m right about all this [and I am], it shows that, even in 2016, there are still leaders who choose collegiality over partisanship.