Mimesis Law
21 September 2019

New Judges With Criminal Defense Experience Bring Rare Diversity To Federal Judiciary

June 8, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Like living organisms, federal trial courts evolve. In the next year, we will swear in two new U.S. Magistrate Judges. So to speak, there will be a changing of the guard.

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Our two fine Magistrate Judges in Omaha are retiring after long and distinguished service.  Judge Tom Thalken will retire at the end of this year, and Judge F.A. Gossett, III will retire next summer.  Both judges are highly regarded by virtually everyone.  In the latest bar poll, nearly 9 out of 10 lawyers who evaluated these fine men gave each of them extremely high marks.

That Thalken and Gossett were highly rated in the bar poll is not a surprise.  As is the case with all US Magistrate Judges, they were selected on merit by an independent panel of lawyers and lay people who nominated them (and other candidates) to the district judges who in turn selected Thalken and Gossett from the pool of candidates sent up by the Merit Selection Committee. By the way, those selections are never final until a full-field FBI background check is completed and the IRS has signed off.

Judge Thalken’s prior service was a federal prosecutor. He was Acting United States Attorney for a time and had a long tenure as First Assistant United States Attorney.  F.A. Gossett, III was a prosecutor as well in the state system before ascending the ranks of the state judiciary to become one of Nebraska’s most highly respected trial judges. These men have become my dear friends, and I highly respect them.  I will miss them.

A slight detour is in order.  What do U.S. Magistrates do in felony criminal cases?  Well, they have the power set forth in the statute to do a wide variety of things.  But, it all depends upon the particular federal district court what duties are assigned.  In our court, our Magistrate Judges are used to the fullest extent permitted by law.

For example, they take guilty pleas (with consent of the defendant) for me and submit Finding and Recommendations to me whether I should accept a plea.  Magistrate Judges handle all criminal pretrial matters from appointment of counsel, to initial appearances, to pretrial detention and even to suppression motions. They control the Nebraska federal trial judge’s calendar with regard to setting trial dates. In short, they are indispensable. Now, let us return to the retirement of Judges Thalken and Gossett.

To prepare for their retirement, Chief Judge Laurie Smith Camp assembled another Merit Selection Committee to provide the court with the opportunity to select two Magistrate Judges at the same time.  The district judges (both active and senior) interviewed the prospective candidates, and we selected two from a field of six proposed for consideration by the panel.

This time around, and for the first time in our court’s long history, we will have two United States Magistrate Judges with significant criminal defense experience.  Let me tell you a bit about them.

Susan M. Bazis was selected to fill Judge Thalken’s position. Judge Bazis has served on the Douglas County Court bench since 2007, and was presiding (chief) judge of that court for four years. (Douglas County includes Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska.) Her innovative leadership has been widely recognized in Nebraska’s bar and judiciary.

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She is the recipient of the UN-O School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Rising Star Award, the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Distinguished Judge–Service to the Community Award, , and the Nebraska State Bar Foundation’s Public Service Award. Judge Bazis will take the bench on January 1, 2017.

Susan served as a deputy Douglas County Public Defender for several years.  In her private practice, she frequently appeared in federal court as a criminal defense lawyer.  Before she became a state judge, Susan was a member of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. She is a former member of the Nebraska Bar Association’s Criminal Practice and Procedure Committee.  While a judge, she was appointed to serve on the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Ad Hoc Committee on Court Appointments.

Mike Nelson is an Omaha trial lawyer, practicing primarily in the area of federal criminal defense. He already serves the court as the Criminal Justice Act Panel representative. Nelson is an adjunct professor at the UNO School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and is also a recipient of its Rising Star Award. (Nelson nominated Judge Bazis for the same award a year after Mike received it—they are good friends.)

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(As young person, Mike was trapped in a burning car. He lost a hand and part of an arm to the fire. He was badly burned over most of his body.)

Mike’s peers have honored him with the Criminal Justice Act Jury Acquittal Award and Dedication to Justice Award. The backstory is that Nelson turned down an appointment to the state bench because he felt obligated to continue the defense of his immigrant client charged with the death of a child while the accused worked as the baby’s nanny. His defense—revealing the lack of a scientific basis for diagnosing the “shaken baby syndrome”—made national news.

Nelson will fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Magistrate Judge F.A. Gossett, III.  Mike will take the bench on June 30, 2017.

These two new judges come to the bench with a different perspective than their predecessors.  This type of true diversity is worth celebrating.

Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Mark W. Bennett
    8 June 2016 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    I have had the great privilege of having Mike Nelson appear before me on numerous occasions for many, many years. He will make an outstanding U.S Magistrate Judge. I am very proud of our sister district’s federal judges. You cannot find a finer group anywhere in the nation than these dedicated, hard working, outstanding in every respect, public servants. You make us all proud.

    Mark W. Bennett
    U.S. District Judge
    N.D. of Iowa

    • Richard G. Kopf
      9 June 2016 at 7:13 am - Reply

      Mark,

      As ever, you are far too kind to us. However, your comment about Mike Nelson fits my experience with him in the 80 or so criminal cases he has appeared before me.

      All the best.

      Rich