The list of applicants for any judicial opening is typically a drumbeat of public-sector attorneys, private practice regulars and the occasional judge wanting a promotion.
That was certainly the case for this round of applicants for the two current vacancies at the Douglas County Courthouse.
And then there was this: State Sen. Justin Wayne, an attorney since 2005, put his name in, which sparked wide eyes in the courthouse and wide speculation outside it.
The intrigue: Wayne — a Democrat, a former lawyer for Union Pacific and now a general private practice attorney handling criminal cases, civil litigation and juvenile matters — is seeking the chance to be appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican sometimes on opposite sides of issues with the senator.
Follow the potential further: If Ricketts were to make Wayne a judge, the Nebraska governor would also have the opportunity to appoint Wayne’s successor in Legislative District 13, representing north-central and northeast Omaha.
That appointee would then have to run next year. Whoever won that election would then finish out Wayne’s legislative term, through the end of 2024. Wayne is term-limited after this term.
Reached Friday, Wayne wanted little to do with questions about his application and or any political fallout that could result.
“To me, I don’t want this process to be political,” he said.
Wayne said it's a private ambition that would feed his public service desire. A 2005 graduate of the Creighton School of Law, Wayne said he has admired several judges and counts some as mentors.
Like many attorneys, Wayne said, he’s “never not thought about being a judge" and thinks that his experience and demeanor are a fit for the bench. Some attorneys apply multiple times. Wayne said this is his first application.
He said he contemplated applying earlier this year but didn’t want to interfere with his leadership in the Legislature on redistricting. That special session, which Wayne helped lead, finished about noon Thursday. Wayne applied at the end of Thursday, just before the deadline.
District judges make $178,000 a year and preside over a variety of cases, from divorces to criminal trials to tort litigation.
Wayne noted that he’s not the only one who has had to reconcile the impact that career desires might have on the political makeup of the Legislature.
State Sen. Tony Vargas, a Democrat, is running for Congress in the Omaha-based 2nd District. If he wins, he would have to vacate his seat before finishing his term.
“I’m looking at what’s best for my family right now and what’s best for my future in public service,” Wayne said. “There’s a lot more steps to be taken. Why not start the process?”
Including Wayne, there are seven applicants for the two district judgeship vacancies created by the retirements of Judges Greg Schatz and Thomas Otepka.
The six other applicants are: longtime Douglas County prosecutors Katie Benson and Molly Keane; assistant Douglas County public defender Korey Taylor; Omaha private practice attorney Tony Liakos; former public defender and current child support referee LeAnne Srb; and current Douglas County Court Judge Grant Forsberg, reportedly a friend of Ricketts.
Keane, Taylor and Forsberg have all been finalists for recent openings.
There’s another hurdle before any political consequences could be realized. Wayne and the others must interview with the Judicial Qualifications Commission on Oct. 21. That commission then forwards the names of finalists for the governor to interview.
In addition to their opposing political parties, Wayne has sometimes voted to override Ricketts’ vetoes. That said, the two aren't archenemies. A World-Herald review of campaign donations shows that the Ricketts family gave Wayne’s campaign a total of $16,500 over the years.
Ricketts himself gave Wayne $6,000 when Wayne was campaigning for the Omaha Public Schools board. Ricketts’ father, Joe Ricketts, also gave Wayne money for a school board run. Ricketts’ wife, Susanne Shore, a Democrat, gave Wayne $10,000 for his first legislative run, in 2016.
It doesn’t appear that Ricketts, who is known for donating mostly to Republican senators, has given money to Wayne’s campaigns for the Legislature.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.