Sarala Vidya Nagala – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut

Sarala Vidya Nagala, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, is one of three nominees put forward by the Biden Administration to fill vacancies on the District of Connecticut, in one of the biggest turnovers of the court since 1994.

Background

Nagala received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University in 2005 and her Juris Doctor from the University of California School of Law in 2008. After graduating law school, she clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Susan Graber on the Ninth Circuit, before joining the San Francisco office of Munger Tolles & Olson as an Associate. In 2012, Nagala moved to the public sector as an Assistant U.S. Attorney with the District of Connecticut, becoming Deputy Chief of the Major Crimes Unit in 2017. Nagala is still with the office.

History of the Seat

Nagala has been nominated to a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut opened by Judge Vanessa Lynne Bryant’s move to senior status on February 1, 2021.

Legal Career

Nagala started her legal career at the firm of Munger Tolles & Olson, a firm that has produced many prominent federal judges, including Justice Brett Kavanaugh and four sitting Ninth Circuit judges. At the firm, Nagala was part of the legal team representing Bank of America in seeking damages arising from financial fraud orchestrated by the Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp. See Bank of Am, N.A. v. FDIC, 908 F. Supp. 2d 60 (D.D.C. 2012). On the pro-bono side, Nagala was part of the legal team, along with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, challenging a gang injunction imposed by Orange County. Vasquez v. Rackaukas, 203 F. Supp. 3d 1061 (C.D. Cal. 2011).

Nagala has spent the last nine years as a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, rising to become Deputy Chief of the Major Crimes Division. Among the notable cases that she has handled with the office, Nagala prosecuted Stavros Ganias for tax evasion. United States v. Ganias, 755 F.3d 125 (2d Cir. 2014). Ganias challenged his conviction on two grounds: that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when law enforcement copied three of his hard drives pursuant to a search warrant and then improperly retained materials beyond the scope of the warrant; and that his Sixth Amendment rights were violated by a juror’s Facebook activity. A divided panel of the Second Circuit reversed the conviction on the basis of the Fourth Amendment argument. However, Nagala petitioned for en banc rehearing, and the full Second Circuit reversed the decision based on Judge Peter Hall’s dissent, finding that, while the Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated, the “good faith” exception precluded suppression of the evidence. See United States v. Ganias, 824 F.3d 199 (2d Cir. 2016) (en banc). In other matters, Nagala is currently prosecuting New Britain resident Steven Knox for stealing 43 tires from the U.S. Postal Service. Don Stacom, Man Charged in Theft of 43 Tires From U.S. Postal Service Garage; Investigators: Suspect Admitted to Using Access Card He Kept From Repair Shop Job, Hartford Courant, June 10, 2021.

Overall Assessment

Despite being in her 30s, Nagala has already gained experience in both civil and criminal litigation. While some senators may raise questions about Nagala’s age, such inquiries are likely to be blunted by the relative youth of a number of Trump appointees. As such, one can expect Nagala to be confirmed in due course and make history as the first Indian-American judge on the Connecticut federal bench.

Jia Cobb – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Relman Colfax Partner Jia Cobb, nominated for the federal district court in D.C., would come to the bench with extensive litigation experience on both the civil and the criminal side.

Background

Jia Cobb received her B.A. from Northwestern University in 2002 and then received her J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School where she served as Coordinating Editor of the Harvard Law Review.

After graduating, Cobb clerked for Judge Diane Wood on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and joined the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. In 2010, she became a Partner at Relman Colfax, where she practices civil litigation and civil rights law.

History of the Seat

The seat Cobb has been nominated for opened on April 3, 2021, with Judge Emmett Sullivan’s move to senior status. Cobb was recommended by House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton for the federal bench on March 25, 2021.

Legal Experience

Cobb started her legal career as a clerk to Judge Diane Wood on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. She then shifted to the Public Defender Service in D.C., where she represented indigent defendants in D.C. Superior Court and in the federal courts. Among her clients there, Cobb represented Christopher Timmons, who was charged with bringing a grenade and additional weapons near the U.S. Capitol complex. In his defense, Timmons claimed that he wanted to assist the police in their functions.

For the past eleven years, Cobb has served as a Partner at Relman Colfax, where she has practiced civil rights and civil litigation. Among her notable matters at the firm, Cobb represented an African-American bartender fired from Redline bar in Washington D.C. in an employment discrimination suit. The suit ended in a $687,000 judgment against the bar by a jury.

Additionally, in 2021, Cobb led the filing of lawsuits against the County of Stafford, the City of Fredericksburg, the District of Columbia, and other governmental organizations for allegedly infringing upon the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of Black Lives Matter protesters.

Statements and Writings

Throughout her career, Cobb has spoken out on issues of race, gender, and diversity, including from her college days. As a college sophomore at Northwestern, Cobb spoke as part of the school’s first conference on diversity on a panel on racial coverage at the Daily Northwestern. See Rebecca Orbach, Northwestern U. Holds School’s First Conference on Diversity, Daily Northwestern, Nov. 8, 1999. She also served on a committee reviewing the school’s University Sexual Assault Hearing and Appeals System. See Emily Bittner, Committee Reviews Northwestern U.’s Sexual Assault Hearing and Appeals System, Daily Northwestern, May 18, 2000. In another interview from college, Cobb noted that she wanted to speak for the disadvantaged to “honor[] those who have made sacrifices for her.” See Wailin Wong, DePaul Professor Praises King’s ‘Radical Legacy’ Despite Flaws, Daily Northwestern, Jan. 11, 2001.

Similarly, as a law student, Cobb co-authored a paper discussing the disparities in African Americans serving on law reviews. See Jia Cobb, Lauren Sudeall & Amanda Teo, Diversity on the Law Review, HARV. L. REC., May 2, 2005.

Overall Assessment

With an appellate clerkship, nearly two decades of criminal and civil litigation experience, and a lack of background in partisan politics, Cobb could be a fairly uncontroversial pick for the federal bench. However, she is likely to draw opposition primarily based on her work in criminal defense and civil rights, which opponents may argue reflects bias. She may also draw questions for her statements and writings on issues of race and diversity. Ultimately, as long as Democrats hold together, Cobb will likely be confirmed in due course.

Veronica Rossman – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

In the history of the Tenth Circuit, only one Democratic appointee has ever been named to the court from Colorado: Judge Carlos Lucero.  With Judge Lucero’s move to senior status, Federal Defender Veronica Rossman is now poised to become the second.

Background

Rossman was born Veronica Sophia Parkansky to a Jewish family in Moscow in 1972.[1]  After getting a B.A. from Columbia University in 1993, Rossman joined the University of California Hastings Law School, graduating in 1997.  After graduating, Rossman clerked for Chief Justice A. William Maupin on the Nevada Supreme Court before joining Morrison & Foerster as a litigation associate.

In 2003, Rossman became an assistant federal defender in the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming for a year and then spent a year at Mastbaum & Moffat, and a year as a staff attorney with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit before becoming a professor at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law.

Since 2010, Rossman has worked as a Federal Defender for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming, serving as Senior Counsel since 2017.

History of the Seat

Rossman was tapped for a Colorado seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.  The seat was vacated by Judge Carlos Lucero’s move to senior status on February 1, 2021.  

Legal Career

Rossman has held a variety of positions throughout her legal career, including as a law professor, federal defender, and attorney in private practice.  Rossman started her career as an Associate with Morrison and Foerster, where, among other matters, she represented Dr. Edward McSweegan, a National Institute of Health (“NIH”) doctor, in a cross-filed defamation lawsuit against the founders of the Lyme Disease Foundation (“LDF”).[2]

The bulk of Rossman’s career has been at the Federal Defender Service, representing indigent defendants in federal courts in Colorado and Wyoming.  Among the matters she handled with the office, Rossman represented Arlo Looking Cloud, who was charged with murdering Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash in Denver.[3] 

Much of Rossman’s work, however, has been in appellate courts.[4]  Among the notable cases she handled, Rossman successfully persuaded the Tenth Circuit to reject a probation condition allowing probation officers to require third-party notification by the defendant upon the probation officer’s determination of a threat by the defendant.[5]  In an opinion by Judge Carolyn McHugh, the Tenth Circuit agreed that the condition improperly delegated judicial power to the probation officer.[6]

In another case, Rossman argued that U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer committed plain error in holding that the defendant’s 1992 conviction for “Sale or Transportation of Marijuana” constituted a drug trafficking felony under the sentencing guidelines.[7]  In an opinion by Judge Lucero, the Tenth Circuit agreed that Brimmer had committed plain error in finding that the offense was a “drug trafficking” offense, but affirmed on the basis that the error did not affect the defendant’s “substantive” rights.[8]

Additionally, Rossman joined a team of public defenders filing an amicus brief in Welch v. United States, asking the Supreme Court to hold that Johnson v. United States, which voided the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act, should be applied retroactively.[9]  The Supreme Court agreed with Rossman’s position in a 7-1 decision (with Justice Thomas as a lone dissenter).[10]

Overall Assessment

With experience in private practice, academia, and indigent defense, Rossman appears to be qualified for a seat on the Tenth Circuit.  While she has few writings or policy positions expressed that can be triggers for opposition, some senators may nonetheless oppose Rossman on the basis on her representation of indigent defendants.  Needless to say, such opposition is unlikely to carry the day and Rossman should join the Tenth Circuit bench by the fall.

[1] Veronica S. Rossman Fact Sheet, Alliance for Justice, https://www.afj.org/document/veronica-s-rossman-fact-sheet/ (last visited Jun. 3, 2021).

[2] Vanderhoof-Forschner v. McSweegan, No. 99-1615, No. 99-1616, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 10682 (4th Cir. May 16, 2000).

[3] See Deborah Mendez, Judge Orders Denver Man to Face Murder Charge in South Dakota, A.P. State & Local Wire, Apr. 4, 2003.

[4] See, e.g., United States v. Paup, 933 F.3d 1226 (10th Cir. 2019); United States v. Bacon, 900 F.3d 1234 (10th Cir. 2018); United States v. Dunbar, 718 F.3d 1268 (10th Cir. 2013); United States v. Loya-Rodriguez, 672 F.3d 849 (10th Cir. 2012).

[5] United States v. Cabral, 925 F.3d 687 (10th Cir. 2019).

[6] See id. at 690.

[7] United States v. Castellanos-Barba, 648 F.3d 1130 (10th Cir. 2011).

[8] Id. at 1133.

[9] See Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257, 1260 n. 1 (U.S. 2016).

[10] Id. at 1261.

Lauren King – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington

Native Americans are among the most under-represented groups on the federal judiciary, with only two judges serving in active status. President Biden has now nominated a third, Seattle attorney Lauren King.

Background

Born in 1982, King received a B.A. from the University of Washington in 2004 and a J.D. from the University of Virginia Law School in 2008.

After graduating, King worked as an associate at K&L Gates for a year and then at Byrnes Keller Cromwel for two years before joining the Seattle office of Foster Garvey P.C. where she currently serves as a Principal.

History of the Seat

King has been nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. This seat opened on January 27, 2016, when Judge Robert Lasnik moved to senior status. On April 6, 2016, the Obama Administration nominated Judge Beth Andrus to fill the vacancy, but her nomination was never confirmed by the Republican Senate.

On July 13, 2018, the Trump Administration announced their intention to nominate federal prosecutor Tessa Gorman to the Western District. However, due to a dispute with Washington’s U.S. Senators over the Ninth Circuit nomination of Eric Miller, the Trump Administration chose not to proceed with Gorman’s nomination. President Biden nominated King on May 12, 2021.

Legal Experience

King, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, has focused her career on Native American law, frequently representing Native American tribes in lawsuits seeking to protect their interests. Most notably, King represented the Quileute tribe in a suit seeking to protect the fishing boundaries designated for the tribe under the 1855 Treaty of Olympia. See Greg Geudel, Lauren King: “Rising Star” Defender of Tribal Rights, Native American Legal Update, May 6, 2016. King was able to get a favorable ruling on the suit from Judge Ricardo Martinez on the Western District of Washington. The decision was subsequently appealed and partially affirmed by a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. See Makah Indian Tribe v. Quileute Indian Tribe, 873 F.3d 1 (9th Cir. 2017).

King has also made a name for herself in litigating related Indian law cases before the Ninth Circuit, including a subproceeding involving the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. Muckleshoot Indian Tribe v. Tulalip Tribes, 944 F.3d 11 (9th Cir. 2019). She also represented the Muscogee Creek Nation in a suit regarding the use of a tract of land in Wetumpka, Alabama. Muscogee (Creek) Nation v. Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Civil Action No. 2:12cv1079-MHT, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47953 (M.D. Ala. Mar. 15, 2021).

Overall Assessment

Given the focus on her experience on Indian law, King is an unusual choice for a federal judicial appointment, and her selection shows a willingness by the Biden Administration to pick unconventional nominees. While King may draw some opposition for her youth, she is nonetheless favored to join the bench and may even be poised for elevation to the Ninth Circuit if a Washington seat was to open.

Judge Gustavo Gelpi – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has not seen a new judge appointed since 2014, longer than any other court of appeals.  With the death of Judge Juan Torruella in 2020, the Court now has a vacancy and a nominee, District Judge Gustavo Gelpi.

Background

Gustavo Antonio Gelpi Jr. was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico on December 11, 1965.  Gelpi received a B.A. from Brandeis University in 1987 and his J.D. from Suffolk University Law School in 1991.  After graduating, Gelpi spent two years as a law clerk for Judge Juan Perez-Gimenez on the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico before joining the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Puerto Rico.

In 1997, Gelpi joined the Puerto Rico Attorney General’s Office, becoming the Territory’s Solicitor General in 1999.  In 2001, he left the position to re-enter private practice, but the same year became a federal magistrate judge at only thirty-five. 

On April 24, 2006, Gelpi was nominated by President George W. Bush to the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, replacing Judge Hector Laffitte.  Gelpi was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on July 20, 2006, becoming the 24th Hispanic judge appointed by Bush and breaking the record for the most number of Hispanic federal judges named by any President.[1]  Gelpi has served on the Court ever since.

History of the Seat

Gelpi has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.  This seat opened with the death of Judge Juan Torruella, a pioneering judge who was the first from Puerto Rico to sit on the First Circuit, on October 26, 2020.  On November 13, 2020, President Trump nominated U.S. District Judge Raul Arias-Marxuach to fill the vacancy.  While Arias-Marxuach received a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was never reported to the floor and the seat was left open at the end of the Trump Administration.

Political Activity

Gelpi has a few donations to his name, giving to members of both parties, including the Vice President Al Gore and Commissioner Luis Fortuno (Fortuno caucused with the GOP as a resident commissioner in Washington).[2]  

Legal Experience

While Gelpi has been a judge since the age of thirty-five, in his career before that, Gelpi worked in a variety of legal positions.  He started his career, like a number of Biden appointees, as a public defender, representing indigent defendants in federal court between 1993 and 1997.

Notably, as Puerto Rico Solicitor General, Gelpi argued before the First Circuit, arguing that Puerto Rico residents, as U.S. Citizens, had a right to vote in the 2000 Presidential election, even though Puerto Rico is not a state.[3]  The First Circuit rejected the lawsuit, holding that Puerto Rico residents did not have a constitutional right to vote in presidential elections.[4]

Judicial Experience

Gelpi has served as a judge for twenty years, including five as a U.S. Magistrate Judge and fifteen as a U.S. District Court Judge.  We summarize some of Gelpi’s more significant cases during this tenure below.

U.S. Magistrate Judge

Gelpi served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge from 2001 to 2006.  In this role, he handled settlement, discovery, and made recommendations on dispositive motions.  He also presided over cases where the parties consent and reviewed bail and detention motions.  Among the noteworthy matters he handled as a U.S. Magistrate, Gelpi ordered the seizure of a polar bear from the Hermanos Brothers Circus, finding that the papers for the bear indicating sale from a zoo were fraudulent.[5]

Puerto Rico Resident Rights

One theme of many of Gelpi’s rulings has been to push back against the disparate treatments of Puerto Rico residents under the law.  Early in his career as a judge, Gelpi presided over a lawsuit challenging the disparate treatment of health centers in Puerto Rico in Medicaid “wraparound” payments.[6]  In his ruling, Gelpi outlined the legal and political history of Puerto Rico to rule that it was now an “incorporated” territory of the U.S. and thus was entitled to protection from “discriminatory federal legislation.”[7]  Similarly, in a ruling upheld by the First Circuit, Gelpi also found that Puerto Rico residents could not be discriminated against in Social Security Supplemental Disability benefits.[8]

Gay Marriage

In 2016, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, Judge Juan Perez-Gimenez ruled that the Obergefell decision did not apply to Puerto Rico and that the territory’s ban on gay marriage remained in effect.[9]  The ruling was appealed to the First Circuit, who promptly reversed and reassigned the case to Gelpi, ruling that Perez-Gimenez’s ruling “errs in so many respects that it is hard to know where to begin.”[10]  On April 11, 2016, Gelpi issued a declaratory judgment invalidating Puerto Rico’s same sex marriage ban under Obergefell.[11]

Sony Entertainment and Copyright

In 2015, Gelpi ruled that Luis Adrian Cortes-Ramos, a songwriter who entered a music video contest held by Sony, was compelled to arbitrate his intellectual property suit against them.[12]  His ruling was ultimately upheld by the First Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Juan Torruella.

Writings

Both before and after taking the bench, Gelpi has written extensively on the law, including pieces in Spanish and English.  Among the topics on which Gelpi has written are the Confederate judiciary during the American Civil War,[13] the Insular Cases,[14] and maritime law.[15]  For example, in an article early in his career, Gelpi details the history of Puerto Rico law that permits the U.S. Congress to allow the territory to supersede federal maritime law.[16]

Overall Assessment

With two decades as a federal judge, Judge Gelpi comes to his First Circuit nomination with more federal judicial experience than any nominee since Judge Julie Carnes was appointed in 2014.  This experience necessarily dictates a large number of rulings, some controversial, that are likely to be closely scrutinized in order to determine confirmation.  In particular, Gelpi may draw questions related to his writings and rulings on the disparate treatment of Puerto Rico under the law, as well as his participation in the suit to have Puerto Ricans vote in the 2000 Presidential election.

Nonetheless, Gelpi certainly has the requisite experience for the bench, and as a mid-50s judge nominated by a Republican President, some Republicans may feel that Gelpi is the best they can get from the Biden Administration. Ultimately, how many Republican votes Gelpi gets may be a good indication of how much bipartisan support the Administration’s nominees can expect. If senators oppose Gelpi, they are unlikely to support any Biden nominee.

[1] Ken Herman, Bush Has Appointed More Hispanic Federal Judges Than Past Presidents, Cox News Service, Sept. 21, 2017.

[2] See Center for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/donor-lookup/results?name=gustavo+gelpi&cycle=&state=&zip=&employ=&cand= (last visited May 23, 2021).

[3] Martin Finucane, Federal Appeals Court Hears Arguments in Puerto Rico Vote Case, A.P. State & Local Wire, Oct. 5, 2000.

[4] See Iguarta de la Rosa v. United States, 229 F.3d 80, 83 (2000) (per curiam).

[5] Luis Varela, Federal Authorities Remove Polar Bear From Mexican Circus in Puerto Rico, A.P. Int’l, Mar. 6, 2002.

[6] See Consejo de Salud Playa De Ponce v. Perez-Pordomo, 556 F. Supp. 2d 76 (D.P.R. 2008).

[7] See id. at 105.

[8] See United States v. Vaello-Madero, 956 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. 2020).

[9] Becky Bratu, Judge Upholds Same-Sex Marriage Ban in Puerto Rico, NBC News, Mar. 8, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/judge-upholds-same-sex-marriage-ban-puerto-rico-n534556.

[10] See Chris Geidner, Federal Appeals Court: Yes, Puerto Rico’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban is Unconstitutional, BuzzFeed, Apr. 7, 2016, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/chrisgeidner/federal-appeals-court-yes-puerto-ricos-same-sex-marriage-ban.

[11] See Conde-Vidal v. Garcia Padilla, No. 3:14-cv-01253 (D.P.R. Apr. 11, 2016).

[12] See Cortes-Ramos v. Sony Corp. of America, No. 14-1578 (D.P.R. 2015).

[13] See Hon. Gustavo A. Gelpi, El Poder Judicial Federal De Los Estados Confederados de America Durante El Periodo de la Guerra Civil (1861-1865), 46 Rev. D.P. 1 (2006).

[14] Gustavo A. Gelpi, Los Casos Insulares: Un Estudio Historio Comparativo de Puerto Rico, Hawaii Y Las Islas Filipinas, 45 Rev. Jur. U.I.P.R. 215 (August-May, 2010-2011).

[15] Gustavo A. Gelpi, Jr., The Maritime Law of Puerto Rico, 28 J. Mar. L. & Com. 647 (October 1997).

[16] Id. 

Judge Angel Kelley – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts

Judge Angel Kelley (also known as Angel Kelley Brown) is a state judge in Massachusetts with a varied resume, including serving as a federal prosecutor, a clinical instructor, and a legal aid attorney. Kelley now seeks to add an additional credential: federal judge.

Background

Kelley was born in New Rochelle, NY in 1967. Kelley received a B.A. from Colgate University in 1989, and then obtained a J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1992.

After graduation, Kelley worked for the Juvenile Rights Division with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn for four years before being hired by the Litigation Division of the NY & NJ Port Authority.

In 2005, Kelley moved to Massachusetts to become a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Law School. After two years there, and another two years with the US. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.

In 2009, Kelley was nominated by Governor Deval Patrick to be a Judge on the Massachusetts District Court. In 2013, Patrick elevated Kelley to the Massachusetts Superior Court, where she currently serves.

History of the Seat

Kelley has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts opened by Judge Douglas Woodlock’s move to senior status on June 1, 2015. On July 30, 2015, President Obama nominated Boston attorney Inga Bernstein to fill the vacancy. Despite being overwhelmingly voted out of the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, Bernstein was blocked from a final vote before the end of the Obama Administration. Due to an inability to reach an agreement on candidates with Massachusetts Senators, the Trump Administration never extended a nominee to fill the vacancy. Kelley was nominated to the seat on May 12, 2021.

Legal Career

Kelley has held a number of positions throughout her career, including working as a clinical instructor, as a federal prosecutor, and as a legal aid attorney. The most significant portion of Kelley’s career, however, was spent as an attorney on behalf of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an interstate compact that regulates transportation between the states.

Among the notable matters she handled for the Port Authority, Kelley defended the decision to dismiss Christopher Mapp, a Port Authority employee, based on alleged false statements he made in seeking Red Cross Aid after being traumatized after witnessing the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mapp v. Burnham, 23 A.D.3d 37 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005). An appellate court reversed the dismissal, noting that Mr. Mapp was entitled to the aid he applied for and any false statement he made (he had allegedly stated that he was unemployed) had no materiality to his application. See id.

Jurisprudence

Kelley has served as a state court judge in Massachusetts since her appointment in 2009. For the first three years of her career, Kelley served on the Brockton District Court, which holds jurisdiction over felonies up to five years, misdemeanors, ordinance violations, and all civil matters involving less than $25,000 in damages. Since 2013, Kelley has served on the Massachusetts Superior Court, a trial court with jurisdiction over civil offenses with more than $50,000 at stake and jurisdiction over all felony criminal matters.

Among the notable matters that she heard as a judge, Kelley denied a motion for a new trial made by Clifton Caldwell, who argued that, at his original trial, the prosecution had failed to disclose a key witness’ long history as a police informant who had received lenient sentences in exchange for cooperation in other cases. See Commonwealth v. Caldwell, SJC-12907, May 6, 2021 (Mass. 2021). Kelley denied the motion by noting that there was insufficient evidence connecting the witness’ testimony in the defendant’s case with preferential treatment he received in other cases. See id. However, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed, holding that the informaiton not disclosed was exculpatory and the failure to disclose prejudiced the defendant, and, as such, that a new trial was needed.

In addition to her work in the courtroom, Kelley has been active on social justice issues, including trainings encouraging judges and court staff to stand up against conscious and unconscious bias. See Ralph D. Gants, Voice of the Judiciary: Creating Courts Where All Are Truly Equal, 65 B.B.J. 4 (Winter 2021). She also participated in the Committee charged with creating a new Massachusetts Code of Judicial Conduct, and has spoken in forums discussing racism in the court system, including experiences that she has faced as a judge of color. See Yawu Miller, Officials Take On Discrimination in Court System, Bay State Banner, Mar. 4, 2021.

Overall Assessment

With two decades of legal experience under her belt, Kelley can certainly argue that she is academically qualified for the federal bench. However, she may draw opposition (or at least questioning) based on her active anti-bias work in the judiciary. While Kelley is likely to draw conservative opposition, she is nonetheless favored for confirmation.

Judge Karen Williams – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey

New Jersey’s federal district court sat without any new judges during the Trump Administration, and, with six vacancies, the Biden Administration is moving swiftly to transform the court. Among the nominees are U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Williams.

Background

Karen McGlashan Williams, not to be confused with the distinguished jurist who sat on the Fourth Circuit for seventeen years, grew up in Long Island with four siblings. Williams graduated from Penn State University in 1985 and then attended Temple University Beasley School of Law, getting her J.D in 1992.

After graduating, Williams joined the firm of Jasinki & Williams, P.C. in Atlantic City. She stayed with the firm until 2009, when she was appointed to be U.S. Magistrate Judge based in Camden, where she has served since.

History of the Seat

The seat Williams has been nominated for opened on May 31, 2017, with Judge Jerome Simandle’s move to senior status. The Trump Administration never put forward a nominee to fill this vacancy. Williams was nominated on May 12, 2021.

Legal Experience

Williams has spent her entire career before becoming a judge at the firm of Jasinski & Williams, P.C., where she primarily focused on employment law.

Among the notable cases she has handled, Williams represented Atlantic City in an appeal of a decision finding that the City had violated a firefighter’s First Amendment rights by disciplining him for using a racial slur against an African-American police officer. Karins v. Atl. City, 152 N.J. 532 (N.J. 1998). The New Jersey Supreme Court sided in favor of the City, holding that the use of the racial slur was not protected speech under the First Amendment. See id. at 552.

Judicial Experience

Williams has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in New Jersey since her appointment in 2009. In this role, she handles settlement, discovery, and makes recommendations on dispositive motions. She also presides over cases where the parties consent and reviews bail and detention motions.

Among the cases she handled as a U.S. Magistrate Judge, Williams chose to detain Richard Tobin, an 18-year-old Camden man accused of trying to recruit attackers against synagogues on neo-Nazi social networking platforms. See Jeremy Roebuck, Feds Link NJ Man to Synagogue Vandalism; He is Accused of Using a Neo-Nazi Social Network to Recruit Attackers on Two Sites in the Midwest. He Allegedly Had Much Wider Plans, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 17, 2019. She also ordered the detention of Carlos Matchett, who allegedly used social media to encourage looting and rioting during protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, Amy Rosenberg, A.C. man Faces Riot Charge; He is Accused of Using Social Media To Encourage People to Loot Stores, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 5, 2020, and of Alex Capasso, accused of taking sexually explicit photos of and molesting a minor. See Barbara Boyer, No Bail for Philly Restauranteur Charged with Molesting Young Girl, The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 2016.

In one notable case, Williams was asked by prosecutors to detain police officers Antonio Figueroa and Robert Bayard who were accused of abusing their power and of stealing cash and drugs from local drug dealers. See George Anastasia, Prosecutors Want Camden Police Held Without Bail in Corruption Case, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 19, 2010. However, Williams declined to hold the defendants, instead setting bail at $100,000 with pretrial conditions including electronic monitoring and a curfew. See George Anatasia, $100,000 Bail Set for Accused Camden Officers, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 20, 2010.

Overall Assessment

With over a decade of experience on the federal bench and two decades of experience as a practicing attorney, Williams has the expertise needed to hit the ground running as a U.S. District Judge. She will likely be confirmed with bipartisan support.

Eunice Lee – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

With three vacancies pending on the Second Circuit, President Biden is getting his own chance to put a stamp on the influential court. His first pick is longtime federal defender Eunice Lee.

Background

Eunice C. Lee received her B.A. from Ohio State University in 1993 and her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1996. After graduating, Lee clerked for Judge Susan Dlott on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio and for Judge Eric Clay on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. After her clerkships, Lee joined the Office of the Appellate Defender in New York City, where she worked until 2019.

History of the Seat

Lee has been nominated for a New York seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. This seat was vacated by Judge Robert Katzmann, who moved to senior status on January 21, 2021.

Legal Career

Lee has spent virtually her entire legal career at the Office of the Appellate Defender, starting as a Staff Attorney, and moving on to a supervisory role. At the Office of the Appellate Defender, Lee represented indigent defendants in appellate proceedings in New York state and federal courts.

Among the cases she has handled in state court, Lee represented Ramon Roche, who was convicted of stabbing his common-law wife, Lillian Rivera, 12 to 14 times in the course of a violent struggle (Rivera passed away due to the injuries). See People v. Roche, 772 N.E.2d 1133 (N.Y. 2002). Lee successfully persuaded an appellate panel that the trial judge had erred in failing to instruct the jury regarding the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance based on Rivera’s allegedly abusive behavior, and a divided panel reversed the conviction. See People v. Roche, 286 A.D.2d 290 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001). However, the New York Court of Appeals (despite its name, New York’s highest appellate court) reversed, holding that the defendant was not entitled to the instruction because the evidence was not sufficient to meet either element of the defense. See People v. Roche, 772 N.E.2d 1133 (N.Y. 2002).

Lee has also handled a number of appeals in the Second Circuit, the court she hopes to join. Recently, Lee represented Mahyoub Molhi Mohamed Houtar in challenging the constitutionality of the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act (“IPKCA”). United States v. Houtar, 980 F.3d 268. Specifically, Lee argued that the IPKCA was intended to punish parents who absconded with their children to another country and was unconstitutionally vague as applied to Houtar, whose children were in Yemen for years before their mother petitioned a New York court for custody. See id. at 273. A panel of the Second Circuit rejected the challenge, holding that the statute provided sufficient notice that Houtar’s conduct was illegal, and that it specifically criminalized “retention” of children in addition to abduction. Id. at 275.

Overall Assessment

Having spent virtually her entire legal career representing indigent defendants, Lee brings an unusual background to the biglaw-dominated Second Circuit bench. While some senators may hold her representation of those convicted of crimes against her, Lee has little in her background that is likely to imperil her confirmation.

Judge David Estudillo – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington is the most understaffed court in the country, with only two active judges performing the work of seven.[1]  The court has not seen a new appointment in 14 years, but 2021 looks like the year that the stalemate will break and a new judge will be appointed.  State court judge David Estudillo is hoping to be that judge.

Background

David G. Estudillo was born in 1974 in Sunnyside, Washington, the son of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States in the 1960s as part of the Bracero program.[2]  One of ten children, Estudillo worked at the family store before getting a B.A. from the University of Washington in 1996 and a J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law in 1999.  

After graduating, Estudillo began his legal career at the Moses Lake satellite office of Jeffers, Danielson, Sonn, & Aylward, P.S.[3]  In 2002, he shifted to Scheer & Zender LLP.  In 2005, Estudillo opened a solo legal practice in Moses Lake, practicing there until 2015.

In 2015, Estudillo was appointed by Governor Jay Inslee to the Grant County Superior Court, replacing Judge Evan Sperline and becoming the only Latino superior, district, or municipal court judge in eastern Washington.[4]  He still serves on the bench.

History of the Seat

Estudillo has been nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.  This seat opened on February 28, 2019, when Judge Ronald Leighton moved to senior status.  Due to a dispute between the Trump Administration and Washington’s U.S. Senators over the Ninth Circuit nomination of Eric Miller, no agreement was reached on district court judges, and the Administration did not nominate anyone to fill this vacancy.  President Biden nominated Estudillo on April 29, 2021.

Legal Experience

Before becoming a judge, Estudillo practiced law in Moses Lake in eastern Washington for sixteen years.  Estudillo started his career in 1999 at Jeffers, Danielson, Sonn & Aylward P.S.  From 2002 to 2005, Estudillo worked in Scheer & Zehnder LLP, handling insurance defense, insurance coverage, and plaintiff personal injury cases.[5]  Among the matters he handled there, Estudillo successfully persuaded the Court of Appeals of Washington to reverse a grant of summary judgment against a home contractor he was representing.[6]

From 2005 to 2015, Estudillo practiced at Estudillo Law Firm PLLC, where he largely focused on immigration law, representing clients before the Immigration courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and federal courts.  Estudillo also handled insurance defense work as Panel Counsel for the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company as well as some general civil litigation.[7]

Jurisprudence

Since his appointment in 2015, Estudillo has served on the Grant County Superior Court in Eastern Washington, handling civil, domestic relations, juvenile,and felony criminal cases, as well as appeals from the lower courts of limited jurisdiction.

Among the notable matters, he has handled, Estudillo presided over the murder trial of Chad Bennett, who charged with murdering his 82-year-old landlady because she was planning to evict him.[8]  During the trial, Estudillo denied defense motions for a mistrial based on the prosecution’s raising of allegedly prejudicial character evidence during the trial.[9]  Estudillo ruled that the defense had opened the door to much of the evidence and that the evidence did not influence the jury verdict.[10]  Estudillo sentenced Bennett to 55 years in prison.[11]

In another notable ruling, Estudillo denied a motion by David Nickels, on trial for first-degree murder, to disqualify the Grant County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office from prosecuting him because the elected prosecutor, Garth Dano, had previously represented Nickels.[12]  Estudillo’s ruling was reversed by the Court of Appeals in Washington (and the Washington Supreme Court), ruling that, as a general standard, where an elected prosecutor has a conflict from a prior representation of a defendant, the entire office must recuse.[13]

In other rulings, Estudillo dismissed a suit by Ahmet Hopovac, who argued (after being attacked) that the Department of Corrections had a duty to protect him while he was out on supervision as he, as a convicted felon, could not own a weapon.[14]  Estudillo ruled that the Department of Corrections had no such duty, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.[15]  

Politics and Campaigns

As judges in Washington must periodically run for re-election in order to retain their seats, Estudillo has campaigned for re-election twice (Superior Court judges have four-year terms) in 2016 and 2020, winning both times.

In 2016, Estudillo was challenged by local attorney Nick Wallace, who was the highest rated candidate to be appointed to replace Sperline on the Grant County bench by a Grant County Bar Association survey, but was passed over in favor of Estudillo by Gov. Inslee.[16]  The campaign grew heated, with Estudillo reporting Wallace to the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee for alleged misstatements in his campaign ads, and Wallace accusing Estudillo of misrepresenting the Committee’s subsequent opinion.[17]  Later, in a debate, Wallace noted that Grant County Bar Association voters had ranked him above Estudillo before the latter got Inslee’s appointment, noting: “I don’t think Jay Inslee chose the most qualified person and I want to give Grant County voters a choice.”[18]  Estudillo countered the claim that he was chosen for reasons unrelated to his qualifications, noting:

“The fact that I am Latino, the fact that my parents were from Mexico, the fact that I might look a little different than some people, that is not the defining characteristic of whether I am qualified to be a judge…[and] was not the defining qualification that was used to determine whether or not I am eligible to be a Superior Court judge.”[19]

Estudillo ultimately won the election narrowly, and was re-elected comfortably in 2020.

Outside of the judicial context, in 2018, Estudillo attended the Grant County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner/Fundraiser Saturday alongside U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse and other Republican leaders.[20]

Overall Assessment

The under-staffed Western District of Washington is, in many ways, a casualty of the nominations fight between Washington’s U.S. Senators and the Trump Administration.  Had the fight not happened, Estudillo, with ties to the local Republican Party, and fairly conservative rulings, but having been appointed by the Democratic Governor, could have been a consensus candidate that the Administration and Senators could have agreed to.  It is a bit more unusual for a Democratic Administration that seemingly has an unlimited supply of liberal lawyers to choose from to select Estudillo.

Nonetheless, Estudillo has extensive experience with civil and criminal litigation, and, as a longtime immigration practitioner, would bring an unusual perspective to the federal bench, if and when he is confirmed.

[1] Incidentally, both active judges are in their seventies, and have been eligible for senior status for years.

[2] Royal Register Editor & Ted Escobar, Superior Court Judge Earned His Way Through Life, Columbia Basin Herald, Aug. 31, 2015, https://columbiabasinherald.com/news/2015/aug/31/superior-court-judge-earned-his-way-through-2/.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] Bort v. Parker, 42 P.3d 980 (Wn. App. 2002).

[7] See id.

[8] Jefferson Robins, Tenant Sentenced to 55 Years in Landlady’s Murder, The Wenatchee World, May 15, 2017.

[9] Richard Byrd, Chad Bennett Denied a Mistrial, Columbia Basin Herald, Apr. 12, 2017.

[10] See id.

[11] See Robins, supra n. 7.

[12] See State v. Nickels, 456 P.3d 795 (Wash. 2020).

[13] See id. at 539-40.

[14] See Hopovac v. Dep’t of Corr., 391 P.3d 570 (Wn. App. 2017).

[15] See id.

[16] Ryan Minnerly, Nick Wallace Wallace Announces Candidacy for Judge Seat, Columbia Basin Herald, Mar. 2, 2016.

[17] See Ryan Minnerly, Judicial Candidates Clash on Campaign Ethics Claims, Columbia Basin Herald, May 15, 2016.

[18] Richard Byrd, Judge Candidates Superior Court Candidates Speak to Packed Room, Columbia Basin Herald, May 19, 2016 (quoting Nick Wallace).

[19] See id.

[20] Richard Byrd, Grant GOP Holds Lincoln Day Dinner/Fundraiser, Columbia Basin Herald, Feb. 12, 2018.

Tana Lin – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington is the most understaffed court in the country, with only two active judges performing the work of seven.  As President Biden seeks to fill those vacancies, he has put forward the nomination of Seattle attorney Tana Lin.

Background

Tana Lin was born on September 16, 1966 in Taiwan, and her family immigrated to the United States when she was three years old.  (Bob Geballe, Finding Her Voice, Washington Super Lawyers Magazine, June 30, 2016, https://www.superlawyers.com/washington/article/finding-her-voice/cd7b5581-bac9-4238-8fd5-0e190eadd313.html.) Lin didn’t speak English until the age of five, only used chopsticks through college, and faced bullying as a child.  Lin received a B.A. from Cornell University in 1988 and a J.D. from New York University Law School in 1991.  

After graduating, Lin worked as a public defender in Washington D.C. for four years before joining the Employment Litigation Division with the U.S. Department of Justice.  In 1999, Lin moved to Chicago to be a senior trial attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  In 2001, she shifted to Ann Arbor to lead litigation efforts for the Michigan Poverty Law Program.

Since 2004, Lin has been at Keller Rohrback in Seattle.  She has also served on the Board of Directors for the ACLU of Washington since 2016 and as President since 2019.

History of the Seat

Lin has been nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.  This seat opened on February 6, 2016, when Judge Marsha Pechman moved to senior status.  On April 6, 2016, the Obama Administration nominated Perkins Coie partner Kathleen M. O’Sullivan to fill the vacancy, but her nomination was never confirmed by the Republican Senate.

On July 13, 2018, the Trump Administration announced their intention to renominate O’Sullivan to the Western District.  However, due to a dispute with Washington’s U.S. Senators over the Ninth Circuit nomination of Eric Miller, the Trump Administration chose not to proceed with O’Sullivan’s nomination.  President Biden nominated Lin on April 29, 2021.

Legal Experience

Lin started her legal career as a staff attorney with the Public Defender Service in Washington D.C., representing indigent defendants charged with crimes in the District.  Among the cases she handled there, Lin challenged the sentencing of her 19-year-old client as an adult rather than a juvenile under the D.C. Youth Rehabilitation Act.  (Veney v. United States, 681 A.2d 428 (D.C. App. 1996).)  However, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judge’s decision to sentence the defendant as an adult.  

From 1995 to 1999, Lin worked as a litigator at the Department of Justice, where, among other matters, she helped negotiate a settlement agreement with the City of New York seeking to remedy employment discrimination against blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and women hired to be School Custodians and School Custodian Engineers.  (United States v. N.Y. City Bd. of Educ., 85 F. Supp. 2d 130 (S.D.N.Y. 2000).)  

From 1999 to 2001, Lin was at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she pursued class action suits against Wal-Mart and the Louisiana State Police for employment discrimination.  The suit against the Louisiana State Police involved discrimination against women who sought to apply to be Troopers.  

Since 2004, Lin has worked at the firm of Keller Rohrback in Seattle.  During this time, she has made a name of herself in working with the ACLU in suits against Trump Administration policies.  For example, Lin was part of the legal team challenging the Administration’s travel ban targeting majority-Muslim countries.  (See Martha Bellisle, Judge’s Partial Lifting of Trump Ban Gives Refugees Hope, A.P., Dec. 24, 2017.)  Lin’s tactics during this lawsuit attracted some criticism from conservative blogger Scott Johnson after she sent him a subpoena seeking notes he took at a reception hosted by the Administration.  (See Tim Cushing, Lawyer Deploys Faulty Subpoena Demanding Evidence Preservation, Fails to Impress Lawyer Receiving It, Techdirt, June 30, 2017.)  Johnson, who is a Minneapolis-based attorney, wrote that he intended to fight the subpoena in a blog post.  (Scott W. Johnson, Don’t Subpoena Me, Bro, City Journal,  June 20, 2017, https://www.city-journal.org/html/dont-subpoena-me-bro-15278.html.)  Johnson was ultimately released from the subpoena.  (Scott W. Johnson, Don’t Subpoena Me, Bro: The Sequel, Power Line, Feb. 13, 2020.)

Political Activity

Lin has a limited political history, having donated once to the Congressional campaign of Rep. Pramila Jayapal.  (Center for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/donor-lookup/results?name=tana+lin&cycle=&state=&zip=&employ=&cand= (last visited May 16, 2021).)

Overall Assessment

Even though she has worked at a law firm for almost two decades, the overarching theme of Lin’s legal career has largely been the representation of legal “underdogs”: criminal defendants; and civil rights plaintiffs.  Her record of strongly liberal legal advocacy, suits against the police, and against the Trump Administration are likely to draw controversy, and Lin will likely attract strong levels of opposition.  Nonetheless, Lin’s path to confirmation will depend on whether she can keep all 50 Democrats behind her nomination.