'Senior status' for Judge Helen 'Ginger' Berrigan opens second seat on federal bench in New Orleans
September 9, 2016

A second federal judgeship has opened up in New Orleans with the recent announcement that U.S. District Judge Helen "Ginger" Berrigan has taken "senior status," a form of semi-retirement.1

Berrigan, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, took leave from the bench in January to attend to the illness of a family member, according to a friend of the family.

Her cases were reassigned to other judges, and she hadn't yet returned to the court when she notified President Obama on Aug. 23 of her retirement from active service, freeing her seat on the Eastern District of Louisiana bench.

It is unclear whether Berrigan will return to the bench even in a reduced capacity. The family friend said Friday that her leave is indefinite, and that its indeterminate length prompted Berrigan to free up her seat for a nomination.

Berrigan, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1994, served as Chief Judge of the court from 2001 to 2008. She is widely considered among the most liberal of the 15 federal district judges in New Orleans.

Among her noteworthy cases, Berrigan presided over the corruption trial in 2014 of former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. She ultimately deviated below the minimum 15-year prison term for Nagin under federal sentencing guidelines, handing the former mayor a 10-year prison sentence that some critics viewed as soft.

But Berrigan reasoned that the guidelines aim to deter future criminal activity, and that Nagin was older and his "reputation and credibility have been almost irreparably harmed," making it very unlikely heíd ever again hold a position of public trust.

Berrigan also said she didn't believe Naginís crimes were completely motivated by selfishness. She said they were in part the result of a "deeply misguided desire to provide for those closest to him."

Federal judges can file for senior status when they turn 65, an age Berrigan reached in 2013. Federal judges receive lifetime appointments, and their pay is not affected whether they continue to work or not.2

Last year, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle filed for senior status on his 65th birthday, prompting wide speculation about a nominee at a time when a key figure in the nominating process, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, was viewed as the favorite to become Louisiana's next governor.

In February, President Obama nominated federal Public Defender Claude Kelly for Lemelle's seat. Kelly's nomination remains pending before the Senate.

Including Lemelle and Berrigan, 11 of the 15 district judges in the Eastern District of Louisiana were nominated by Democratic presidents.

Copyright 2016 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

From: John Simerman, "'Senior status' for Judge Helen 'Ginger' Berrigan opens second seat on federal bench in New Orleans," TheAdvocate.Com, New Orleans, September 9, 2016, http://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/courts/article_ae9b4eb0-76e4-11e6-8582-fbeb7e802d9f.html, accessed 09/11/2016.  John Simerman can be reached at jsimerman@theadvocate.com.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

  1. "Honorable Helen G. Berrigan Takes Senior Status," United States District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, PRESS RELEASE, August 26, 2016, http://www.laed.uscourts.gov/news/honorable-helen-g-berrigan-takes-senior-status, accessed 09/11/2016.

  2. Federal judges who retire continue to collect their full salaries for the remainder of their lives.3,4  However, judges who resign or are forced to resign get nothing.  See: Stephen B. Burbank, et al., "Leaving the Bench, 1970-2009: The Choices Federal Judges Make ...", U. Penn. Law Rev., 161, 1 (2012).

  3. 28 U.S.C. § 371(a).

  4. James Gill, "A fat retirement plan for federal judges," The Advocate, Baton Rouge, September 15, 2016.

  5. Michelle de Leon, "Federal Judge Ginger Berrigan announces semi-retirement," The Louisiana Record, September 26, 2016, http://louisianarecord.com/stories/511013055-federal-judge-ginger-berrigan-announces-semi-retirement.