Justice Joan L. Larsen – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

Justice Joan Larsen of the Michigan Supreme Court, has been on President Trump’s radar for a long time.  Over a year ago, Trump included Larsen among a list of 11 jurists he would consider for the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.[1]  While Trump chose Neil Gorsuch for that vacancy, Larsen was tapped shortly after for a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.  While the White House may hope for a swift confirmation for Larsen, her conservative record, along with the lack of consultation with Michigan’s senators, may raise concerns.

Background

Joan Louise Larsen was born in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa in December 1968.  After getting a B.A. with Highest Honors at the University of Northern Iowa,[2] Larsen attended Northwestern University School of Law, graduating first in her class in 1993.  After graduating, Larsen clerked for Judge David Sentelle at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and then for Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.  After her clerkship, Larsen returned to the Washington D.C. Office of Sidley Austin LLP (where she had summered as a law student).  

In 1998, Larsen left Sidley to join the faculty of the University of Michigan Law School.[3]  Other than a short sixteen month stint at the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the U.S. Department of Justice, Larsen taught constitutional law and criminal procedure there until 2015.

In 2015, Larsen was selected by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for an opening on the Michigan Supreme Court.[4]  Larsen’s appoint drew bipartisan support, but was opposed by the Michigan ACLU, who objected to Larsen’s role at OLC in the Bush Administration.[5]

In 2016, Larsen’s name was included on a list of 11 jurists that would be considered for the Supreme Court under the Trump Administration.[6]  While Larsen reportedly did not solicit the mention, she nonetheless recused herself from a challenge to Trump’s electoral win by Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein.[7]

On March 9, 2017, Larsen was contacted by the White House Counsel’s Office about a judicial appointment.  While she interviewed with White House Counsel Don McGahn, Larsen’s name did not come from Michigan’s senators, and was not pre-cleared with them.  Larsen was officially nominated on May 8.[8]

History of the Seat

Larsen has been nominated for a Michigan seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated by Judge David McKeague.  McKeague, a Republican who was tapped for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan by President George H.W. Bush, and elevated to the Sixth Circuit by President George W. Bush in 2005, has indicated that he will move to senior status upon confirmation of a successor.  As such, the seat will not open on the court until Larsen’s confirmation.

Political Activity

Michigan Supreme Court justices are elected in statewide elections to 8-year terms.  Even though these elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, the candidates are still nominated by political parties.  After Larsen’s appointment to the Michigan Supreme Court, she was nominated by the Michigan Republican Party to run for a full term on the court.[9]

During her campaign, Larsen described herself as a “Constitutional, rule of law judge.”  In campaign ads, Larsen emphasized her commitment to “equal justice for all.”  At the same time, Larsen’s supporters including the Chamber of Commerce described her and fellow Justice David Viviano as “not the kind of judges who will let people off on a technicality, implying that Larsen would be unwilling to overturn convictions even if they were obtained through police and prosecutorial misconduct.  In the 2016 general election, Larsen defeated Deborah Thomas, a judge in Michigan’s Third Circuit Court (and the Democratic nominee), winning 58% of the vote, performing significantly worse than fellow Justice David Viviano.[10]

Other than her own campaign for the Michigan Supreme Court, Larsen has scant experience with electoral politics.  In 1996, Larsen drafted and edited policy papers for the presidential campaign of then-Sen. Bob Dole.  In 2012, Larsen made a $500 contribution to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, her only political contribution of record.

Legal Experience

Larsen has spent the vast majority of her legal career either in academia or on the bench.  Nevertheless, her short tenure in the practice of law (including two years at Sidley Austin and one year at OLC) suggests a conservative legal philosophy.

As an associate at Sidley Austin, Larsen was part of the trial team representing Glendale Federal Bank in a breach of contract case against the federal government.  Larsen helped formulate the theory of damages that secured a $381 million judgment for her client.[11]  Larsen also defended the manager of a meat-packing plant who was accused of discharging pollutants into federal waterways.[12]

From 2002 to 2003, Larsen worked as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General at OLC, essentially advising the Bush White House on the legality of its actions.  During Larsen’s tenure, OLC, under the leadership of then-head John Yoo, released a series of controversial memoranda arguing that the use of waterboarding on terror suspects did not violate the law.[13]  While Larsen has insisted that she was not involved in the drafting of those documents, the ACLU claims that she is the author of a classified memo on habeas corpus rights, and may be involved in more high profile discussions.[14]  As of May 2016, the memo authored by Larsen remains classified and has not been released.[15]

Jurisprudence

Larsen has served on the Michigan Supreme Court for approximately two years, hearing appeals from the Michigan lower courts, and serving as the final voice on Michigan state law. During her tenure, Larsen has written only six opinions.  They are outlined below:

In re Application of Consumers Energy Co. – Michigan state law permits businesses to recover the costs of purchasing pollutant allowances if the purchases were prompted by state law changes prior to October 6, 2008.  In this case, the plaintiffs sought to recover the costs of purchasing nitrous oxide allowances from the Michigan Public Service Commission.[16]  While a majority of the Michigan Supreme Court found that state law barred recovery, Larsen, joined by Justice David Viviano, dissented.  Larsen argued that, while the regulations in question were passed before the October 6 deadline, the extended timeline of implementing such regulations meant that the regulations would not come into effect until after that date.  As such, Larsen stated that the plaintiffs should be allowed to recover the costs of the allowances.[17]

People v. Seewald – This case involved a challenge to the conspiracy conviction of two campaign workers for former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI).  The question was whether the defendants, who had agreed to falsely sign nominating petitions as “circulators” had committed “conspiracy” under the Michigan statute.  While the Court of Appeals found for the defendants, Larsen, writing for the unanimous Supreme Court, reversed, finding that the Michigan conspiracy statute covered the defendants’ conduct.[18]

Hodge v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. – This case asked whether Michigan district courts, which have subject matter jurisdictions over all civil cases involving less than $25000 in damages, have jurisdiction over a suit where the initial complaint alleges $25000 in damages, but the evidence in trial establishes greater damages.  Writing for a unanimous court, Larsen held that trial evidence of damages that exceed the jurisdictional limit does not divest a district court of jurisdiction over a civil case.[19]  Rather, Larsen found that jurisdiction is determined by the initial good-faith allegation of damages in the complaint.[20]

Arbuckle v. General Motors, LLC. – This case involved the coordination of workers’ compensation benefits and disability payments by General Motors in a way that allowed offsetting the benefits.  Larsen wrote for a unanimous court in finding that such coordination was permitted under Michigan law.[21]

Yono v. Dep’t of Transportation – The key question in this case was whether the government could be held liable for an injury that occurred on a parallel parking lane on a highway.  Larsen, writing for a 4-3 majority on the court, found that a parallel parking lane could not be considered “designed for vehicular travel” under the highway exception to the Governmental Tort Liability Act.[22]  As such, Larsen held that the government was immune against the plaintiff’s suit.[23]  In dissent, Justice Bridget McCormack argued that parking is necessarily part of “vehicular travel” and that, as such, the highway exception to governmental immunity did apply.[24]

In re Hicks – This case involved a challenge to the termination of the intellectually disabled plaintiff’s parental rights.  Writing for a unanimous court, Larsen found that the trial court had failed to consider the plaintiff’s intellectual disability in determining whether the termination was appropriate.[25]

In addition to the opinions she authored, the opinions Larsen has joined suggest a willingness to rule against plaintiffs[26] and criminal defendants.[27]  For example, in Hecht v. Nat’l Heritage Acads., Larsen joined an opinion by Chief Justice Robert Young vacating a grant of damages to a white teacher who was terminated based on racial bias.[28]  In Covenant Medical Center v. State Farm, Larsen joined Justice Brian Zahra in holding that healthcare providers couldn’t sue no-fault insurers for PIP benefits.[29]  In dissent, Justice Richard Bernstein argued that the majority’s reading contradicted the “plain language of the statute.”[30]

However, Larsen has also joined opinions that achieve more liberal outcomes.  For example, in Associated Builders & Contractors v. City of Lansing, Larsen joined Young’s opinion rejecting a challenge to Lansing’s minimum wage ordinance.[31]  In another case, Larsen joined a 5-2 majority on the court in holding that prosecutors were statutorily barred from using false statements made by police officers in an internal investigation to later prosecute those officers.[32]  In dissent, Justice Steven Markman argued that the majority’s reading of Michigan law goes against the “obvious purpose of the statute.”[33]

Speeches and Writings

As a prominent academic, Larsen has written extensively on constitutional structure, civil rights, and other areas of law.  One of her earliest articles, her law review note at Northwestern, explores the bar on using specific acts to show propensity in criminal cases.[34]  Specifically, Larsen argues that the bar should only be applied against evidence presented by the prosecution, and that barring the use of specific act evidence by a defendant prejudices a their ability to present a complete defense.[35]

In her writings, Larsen has generally been an advocate of expansive presidential powers. Notably, Larsen co-authored a paper on the Incompatibility Clause of the U.S. Constitution.[36]  Larsen and co-author Prof. Steven Calabresi argued that this clause was an essential guard of presidential power and prerogatives.[37]  Eliminating the clause would, Larsen wrote, “result in a fusion of the executive and legislative powers, with the Congress-filled Cabinet controlling the President’s exercise of his constitutionally granted powers.”[38]

Similarly, in an op-ed with the Detroit News, Larsen defended the use of presidential signing statements.[39]  Specifically, Larsen noted that signing statements (statements issued by the executive that “clarify” the scope of the law being signed) represent “the president’s independent vision of what the Constitution requires.”[40]  Larsen specifically brings up President Bush’s signing statement attached to a 2006 anti-torture bill.  She notes that the statement essentially says: “if the circumstances arose in which the law would prevent him from protecting the nation, he would choose the nation over the statute.”[41]  Larsen’s endorsement of the use of signing statements in such a context reinforces her broad view of presidential powers and prerogatives.

Additionally, many of Larsen’s writings show an endorsement of originalism as the primary source of constitutional interpretation.  Originalism, or the theory that the constitution should be interpreted in accordance with the original meaning of the text, has drawn much criticism by liberal legal scholars.[42]  Nevertheless, Larsen frequently employs originalism as a tool for constitutional interpretation.[43]

Overall Assessment

Like most other appellate nominations made by the Trump Administration, Larsen is both young and judicially conservative.  Unfortunately for Larsen, these same factors make it likely that Democrats will look at her nomination with skepticism.

For critics of Larsen’s nomination, the best argument is procedural.  In nominating Larsen, the Trump Administration ignored decades of precedent and failed to consult with Michigan senators.  As such, Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Sen. Gary Peters are well within their rights to refuse to return blue slips and demand that the Administration engage in good faith consultations.  However, if blue slips are returned, Larsen’s thin paper trail will make it difficult to create a compelling case against her confirmation.

Larsen’s expansive views on presidential power are also likely to raise concerns among senators.  Her 2006 op-ed, and her statement that the president could claim to protect the nation by violating the law would raise concerns among those who favor a limited executive.

Additionally, with the emoluments clause suits proceeding against President Trump, senators may also raise Larsen’s writings on the related incompatibility clause.  Furthermore, some senators may raise Larsen’s votes in Yono and Hecht to suggest that she is biased against civil plaintiffs, although others will likely use her vote for the city in Associated Builders to point out her neutrality.

Overall, it is fairly clear that Larsen has both the intellectual heft and the requisite qualifications to serve on the judiciary.  The key question is whether her ideology would make her a result-oriented jurist.  If senators can answer that question in the negative, there is no reason to oppose her nomination. 


[1] Dara Lind and Dylan Matthews, Your Guide to President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court Shortlist, Vox, May 19, 2016, https://www.vox.com/2016/5/18/11703416/trump-supreme-court-shortlist.

[2] As a college student, Larsen stuffed envelopes and made phone calls for the presidential campaign of then-Senator Joe Biden.

[3] She also spent a semester as a visiting professor at Northwestern University Law School.

[4] Paul Egan, Snyder Appoints Joan Larsen to Supreme Court, Detroit Free Press, Sept. 30, 2015, http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2015/09/30/snyder-appoints-joan-larsen-supreme-court/73079114/.

[5] See id.

[6] Lind, supra n.1.

[7] Kathleen Gray, Michigan Supreme Court Justices Recuse Themselves from Recount Case, Detroit Free Press, Dec. 9, 2016, http://www.freep.com/story/news/politics/2016/12/09/michigan-supreme-court-recount/95194974/.

[8] Press Release, White House, President Donald J. Trump Announced Judicial Candidate Nominations (May 8, 2017) (on file at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office).

[9] Emily Lawlor, See Democratic and Republican Candidates for Supreme Court, University Boards, MLive.com, Aug. 28, 2016, http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2016/08/see_democratic_and_republican.html.

[10] Michael Gerstein, Viviano, Larsen Win Re-Election to Mich. Supreme Court, The Detroit News, Nov. 8, 2016, http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/11/08/michigan-supreme-court-results/93501312/.

[11] Glendale Federal Bank v. United States, 43 Fed. Cl. 390 (1999).

[12] See United States v. Sinskey, 4:96-cr-40010-LLP-1 (D.S.D. 1996), aff’d 119 F.3d 712 (8th Cir. 1997).

[13] See Lind, supra n. 1.

[14] Rick Pluta, UM Law Professor Joan Larsen Named to Michgan [sic] Supreme Court”, WDET, Oct. 1, 2015, http://wdet.org/posts/2015/10/01/81659-um-law-professor-joan-larsen-named-to-michgan-supreme-court/.

[15] See Lind, supra n. 1.

[16] See In re Application of Consumers Energy Co., 876 N.W.2d 566 (Mich. 2016).

[17] See id. (Larsen, J., dissenting).

[18] People v. Seewald, 879 N.W.2d 237, 242 (Mich. 2016).

[19] Hodge v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 884 N.W.2d 238 (Mich 2016).

[20] See id. at 239.

[21] Arbuckle v. General Motors, LLC., 885 N.W.2d 232 (Mich. 2016).

[22] Yono v. Dept’ of Transp., 885 N.W.2d 445 (Mich 2016).

[23] See id. at 456.

[24] See id. at 458-59 (McCormack, J., dissenting).

[25] In re Hicks, 893 N.W.2d 637 (Mich. 2017).

[26] See Deacon v. Pandora, 885 N.W.2d 628 (Mich. 2016) (holding that plaintiff did not constitute a “customer” of Pandora’s for the purpose of seeking damages for publicly disclosing his personal information).

[27] See People v. Hall, 884 N.W.2d 561 (Mich 2016) (holding that a defendant who forged signatures on a nominating petition, could be charged with felony forgery).

[28] Hecht v. Nat’l Heritage Acads, 886 N.W.2d 135 (Mich. 2016).

[29] Covenant Med Cntr. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., __ N.W.2d __ (Mich. 2017) (No. 152758).

[30] Id. at *28 (Bernstein, J., dissenting).

[31] Assoc. Builders & Contractors v. City of Lansing, 880 N.W.2d 765 (Mich. 2016).

[32] People v. Harris, 885 N.W.2d 832 (Mich 2016).  

[33] See id. at 860 (Markman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

[34] Joan Larsen, Of Propensity, Prejudice, and Plain Meaning: The Accused’s Use of Exculpatory Specific Acts Evidence and the Need to Amend Rule 404(b), 87 NW. U. L. Rev. 651 (1993).  

[35] See id. at 690.

[36] Article I, Section 6, Clause 2 prohibits individuals from serving simultaneously in the executive and the legislative branches.

[37] Steven G. Calabresi and Joan Larsen, One Person, One Office: Separation of Powers or Separation of Personnel, 79 Cornell L. Rev. 1045 (1994).

[38] Id. at 1118.

[39] Joan Larsen, Bar Group is Wrong, Presidents can Interpret Laws They Sign, Detroit News, Sept. 13, 2006, https://www.law.umich.edu/newsandinfo/pdf/Documents/06_09_september_bargroup.pdf.

[40] Id.

[41] Id.

[42] See, e.g., Nina Totenberg, Justice Breyer: The Case Against ‘Originalists’, Nat’l Pub. Radio, Sept. 30, 2005, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4930456.

[43] See, e.g., Joan L. Larsen, Ancient Juries and Modern Judges: Originalism’s Uneasy Relationship with the Jury, 71 Ohio St. L.J. 959 (2010), Joan L. Larsen, Importing Constitutional Norms from a “Wider Civilization”: Lawrence and the Rehnquist Court’s Use of Foreign and International Law in Domestic Constitutional Interpretation, 65 Ohio St. L.J. 1283, 1309-16 (2004).  

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the Sept. 6th Judiciary Committee Hearing | The Vetting Room

  2. Pingback: Prof. Stephanos Bibas – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit | The Vetting Room

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