Donald Coggins – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina

The J. Waites Waring Judicial Center in Charleston, SC

When the 114th Congress adjourned, it left 59 Obama nominees unconfirmed.  Among his first batch of District Court nominees on May 8, 2017, President Trump renominated two names from that group: David Nye, and Scott Palk.  On August 3, 2017, Trump renominated a third: Donald C. Coggins Jr.

Background

Donald Cecil Coggins Jr. was born on July 17, 1959 in Spartanburg, SC.  Coggins attended Clemson University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1981.  He went on to the University of South Carolina School of Law, graduating in 1984.

After graduating, Coggins returned to Spartanburg, joining Cummings and Smith as an associate.  Two years later, Coggins was made partner in the firm, which was renamed Cummings, Smith and Coggins.

In 1993, Coggins became a partner in Smith and Coggins, Attorneys at Law.  After six years, Coggins founded the firm Harrison, White, Smith & Coggins, P.C. as a Shareholder.  He became the Managing Shareholder at the firm in 2010, and served in that capacity until 2013.  Coggins currently continues as a Shareholder there.

History of the Seat

Coggins has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.  This seat was opened by Judge Joseph Fletcher Anderson’s move to senior status on November 16, 2014.  Coggins’ name was first floated for this vacancy in early 2015, when news broke that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was urging the Obama Administration to nominate Coggins.[1]  Obama ultimately nominated Coggins and South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty to fill two vacancies on February 25, 2016.[2]

While Beatty did not get the support of Graham or Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Coggins did.[3]  Coggins received a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 21, 2016, and was approved without objection on July 14.  However, Coggins’ nomination stalled on the floor due to the blockade on confirmations imposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  Without floor action, it was returned unconfirmed on January 3, 2017.

Coggins was renominated on August 3, 2017 by President Trump, with the support of Graham and Scott.[4]

Legal Experience

Coggins has spent virtually his entire legal career in Spartanburg, practicing a primarily civil litigation practice focused on representing plaintiffs in personal injury, product liability, and professional negligence cases.  In these fields, Coggins has secured large awards for his clients.  In 2001, Coggins secured a $1.35 million verdict in a Family and Medical Leave Act case, a record at the time.[5]

In 2007, Coggins was hired by South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster (now the Governor) to represent the State in an Unfair Trade Practices Act case against a pharmaceutical company.[6]  After a two week trial, Coggins helped secure a landmark $327 million award,[7] although it was reduced to $124 million by the South Carolina Supreme Court.[8]

Additionally, in 2014, Coggins helped secure the largest medical malpractice award ever obtained in Upstate South Carolina.[9]  The $2 million verdict was the result of the doctor’s failure to adequately diagnose and treat the patient’s mesenteric ischemia (a medical condition in which the small intestine fails to get sufficient blood flow).[10]

In addition to his work as a litigator, Coggins also serves as a member of the South Carolina Commission on Lawyer Conduct.  In this capacity, Coggins has overseen formal charges of misconduct against South Carolina attorneys, including making recommendations to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Political Activity

Coggins has a history of supporting candidates of both political parties, making his own political leanings hard to discern.  On one side, Coggins’ firm is Republican-leaning, and his candidacy was championed by Graham, a Republican.[11]  Additionally, Coggins has frequently supported Graham, including donating almost $15000.[12]  Coggins has also supported other Republicans, donating $5100 to Scott, $3000 to former Governor David Beasley, and $3200 to Rep. Trey Gowdy.[13]

On the other hand, Coggins has been a strong supporter of President Obama, volunteering on his behalf in the 2008 primary, and donating almost $7500 to his campaigns.[14]  Coggins has also donated to other Democrats, including Rep. Jim Clyburn, senate candidates Inez Tenenbaum and Vic Rawl, and house candidate Preston Brittain.[15]  Coggins also donated $1000 to the Democratic National Committee in 2008.[16]

Overall Assessment

Coggins is the first Trump nominee whose legal career has primarily been as a plaintiff’s attorney.  Coggins’ experience handling complex cases with large verdicts and complicated settlements will serve him well as a federal trial judge.  Furthermore, Coggins will benefit from his bipartisan history of support.  Given his nomination by Presidents Obama and Trump, as well as his support from Republicans, including Graham and Scott, and Democrats, including Rep. Jim Clyburn, Coggins should sail through the confirmation process.


[1] John Monk, Three Candidates Emerging for Two S.C. Federal Judgeships, The Herald, Jan. 2, 2015, http://www.heraldonline.com/news/local/article12319307.html.

[2] Press Release, White House, President Obama Nominates Two to Serve on the United States District Court (February 25, 2016) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov).  

[3] John Monk, Beatty’s Nomination to be a SC Federal Judge is Stalled, The Herald, July 24, 2016, http://www.heraldonline.com/news/local/article91640322.html.  

[4] Press Release, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Joint Statement from Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott on Judicial Nominations (August 4, 2017) (on file at www.lgraham.senate.gov).

[5] Bellsey v. Betras Plastics, Inc. and Betras, No. 7:00-3882-13 (D.S.C. 2001) (Judge G. Ross Anderson).

[6] See Perry, et al. v. Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories Co., et al., No. 99-0089, Circuit Court of Jefferson County (Miss.) (Judge Pickard), Vadino, et al. v. American Home Products Corp., et al., No. MID-L-425-98, Superior Court, Middlesex County (N.J.) (Judge Corodemus).

[7] South Carolina ex rel. Wilson v. Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharms., Inc., No. 07-CP-42-1438, 2011 WL 2185861 (S.C. Com. Pl. June 3, 2011).

[8] State v. Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharms., Inc., 777 S.E.2d 176 (S.C. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S. Ct. 824 (2016).

[9] Easler v. Spartanburg Reg. Health Serv. Dist. Inc., No. 2011-CP-42-2840 (Spartanburg Cty. Ct. Com. Pl. 2015).

[10] See id.

[11] See Monk, supra n. 1.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

Thoughts on the Sept. 6th Judiciary Committee Hearing

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on two circuit court nominees, two district court nominees, and one executive nominee.  Here are my preliminary thoughts on the proceedings, which can be watched here.  (I’ll focus on the first panel, as Parker and Campbell skated through and will be confirmed easily).

DISCLAIMER:  These are just my opinions.  Reasonable observers of the hearing can obviously disagree on any of these points.

  1. Two Circuit Court Nominees Will Not be The Norm – Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) started the day by recognizing that the hearing will be the second with multiple circuit court nominees, a fact that had drawn liberal criticism.  Grassley’s statement acknowledged that the hearing was “unusual” and suggested that he would go back to having only one circuit court nominee per hearing.
  2. Joan Larsen Will Be Confirmed – Republicans really want Justice Larsen on the circuit court bench; running ads to influence home state senators, threatening to ignore blue slips, and double-booking her with another controversial nominee.  Over the course of the hearing, it was clear why.  Larsen was poised and comfortably conversed with senators on several legal issues.  She assured Democrats that she would be willing to rule against Trump, and emphasized the importance of judicial independence.  She also blunted another line of criticism by confirming that she had no role in the controversial “torture memos” which came from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) during her tenure there.  As I’ve noted before, the strongest argument against Larsen is a procedural one based on lack of consultation.  Now that the blue slips are in, it’s a question of when, rather than if, Larsen will be confirmed.
  3. Amy Barrett Will Be Strongly Opposed – As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) noted early in the hearing, Barrett is “controversial.”  Her writings on Catholic judges and the death penalty and stare decisis have drawn criticism.  For much of the hearing, Barrett carefully navigated her old writings, assuring the Committee that she would follow precedent and that judges could not let their religious views supersede the law.  However, much of the posturing was undone by two key missteps.  First, under questioning from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Barrett declared that, had she been nominated as a trial judge, rather than as an appellate judge, her Catholic faith would compel her not to enter orders of execution.  Sen. Hirono balked at the answer, but did not ask the obvious follow-up: why does Barrett feel compelled to recuse herself from entering orders of execution as a trial judge, but not from affirming such orders as an appellate judge?  Second (and much more damaging from a PR perspective), in an exchange with Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Barrett acknowledged that she had accepted $4200 from the controversial anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).  When Franken pointed out that ADF held many extreme views, including supporting the sterilization of transgender persons, and had been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Barrett inexplicably tried to defend ADF.  She argued that as ADF had filed as co-counsel at the Supreme Court with Wilmer Hale and that, as she herself had experienced no discrimination while interacting with them, they could not be a hate group.  It was an unnecessarily defensive performance and undermined her careful answers until that point.
  4. Franken Remains the Minority’s Best Questioner – In the last “big” hearing,  Franken helped lead the Democrat’s charge against John Bush and Damien Schiff.  This time, he shone in his exchange with Barrett, honing in on inconsistencies in her answers, pressing for follow ups, and stepping back when needed.  Despite not having a law degree, Franken’s performance was one any trial attorney would be proud of.
  5. Sen. Kennedy Remains the Majority’s Toughest Questioner – During the Bush-Newsom-Schiff hearing, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) hammered the latter for his inflammatory blog posts and refused to question Bush at all.  This time, Kennedy started off his questioning by noting that some Republicans had suggested he “go easy” on the Trump nominees.  He declined to do so, pushing Barrett and Larsen to engage with him on legal philosophy, and criticizing them when they refused to do so.  Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) was forced to come to their defense, noting that the nominees were ethically barred from answering some of Kennedy’s questions.  Nevertheless, an unchastened Kennedy maintained the same tempo of questioning in his second round.  At any rate, while Kennedy will likely support both Barrett and Larsen, his desire to engage in real legal debate is refreshing and makes him a welcome presence on the committee.

“Chip” Campbell – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee

As federal judges are often selected by home state senators, and senators tend to choose nominees they have a connection to, partners of the same law firm are occasionally nominated to the same court.  In 2013, for example, two partners at the California law firm, Munger, Tolles & Olson, were chosen to fill vacancies on the Ninth Circuit.  However, it is more unusual for two partners to be simultaneously nominated for judgeships in different states.  The midwestern law firm Frost, Brown, & Todd LLC. achieved this when Nashville partner William L. “Chip” Campbell was tapped for a judgeship a month after Lexington partner Claria Horn Boom.

Background

William Lynn Campbell, Jr., professionally known as Chip, was born in 1969 in Nashville, TN.  After getting a Bachelor of Science from the United States Naval Academy in 1991, Campbell joined the United States Marine Corps, serving for seven years.  In 1998, Campbell left the Marine Corps to attend the University of Alabama Law School.  Campbell served as Editor-in-Chief of the Alabama Law Review and graduated magna cum laude in 2001.

After graduating, Campbell joined the Birmingham office of Maynard, Cooper, & Gale, P.C.  In 2003, Campbell left Maynard, moving to Nashville, and joining Riley, Warnock, & Jacobsen, PLC. as an associate.  Campbell became a member at Riley Warnock in 2010.[1]

In 2011, Campbell moved to the Nashville Office of Frost, Brown, & Todd LLC. as a partner.  He currently practices in the firm’s business litigation practice.  He was nominated for a seat on the federal bench on July 13, 2017.

History of the Seat

Campbell has been nominated to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.  This vacancy opened on April 15, 2017, when Judge Kevin Sharp left the bench.  Sharp, an Obama appointee, was only 54, but resigned his judgeship based on his dissatisfaction with mandatory minimum sentencing laws, arguing that he could not continue to impose unjust sentences.[2]

For his part, Campbell expressed his interest in a district court appointment in November 2016, shortly after the election of President Trump.  From November 2016 to March 2017, Campbell communicated with the staff of Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.  Campbell met with the White House Counsel’s Office on March 28, 2017.  His nomination was officially submitted to the Senate on July 13, 2017.[3]

Legal Experience

Campbell began his legal career in Alabama, litigating labor, tort, and employment cases.  Notably, Campbell was on the legal team defending a coal company against tort claims filed by the widow of a worker killed in a mining accident.[4]

After moving to Nashville to work at Riley Warnock, Campbell changed his focus to business litigation, representing corporations in contract, tort, intellectual property, and regulatory actions. He served as associate counsel in a copyright infringement suit against a karaoke company.[5]  He also successfully defended a check verification company against a Fair Credit Reporting Act lawsuit.[6]

In 2011, Campbell moved to Frost Brown Todd as a partner.  In that capacity, Campbell handled class actions, antitrust, and fraud claims. He also represented the City of Chattanooga in a lawsuit challenging the city’s telecommunications regulations.[7]

Scholarship

Since his student days, Campbell has analyzed statutes, policy and jurisprudence in scholarly articles.  As a law student at the University of Alabama, Campbell published a student note titled “Moving Against the Tide: An Analysis of Home School Regulation in Alabama.”[8]  In the note, Campbell analyzed the regulation of homeschooling through the lens of constitutional rights.  Specifically, Campbell concluded that, under Supreme Court, there is no fundamental constitutional right to an education, although the Supreme Court has recognized a parent’s fundamental right to direct their child’s education.[9]  Campbell went on to criticize Alabama’s disparate treatment of homeschooling depending on whether the home school program is affiliated with a church or not.[10]  He recommended that the state relax its certification standards for home school teachers, instead focusing on educational outcomes through student testing.[11]

As a young lawyer at Maynard, Campbell authored an article explaining Alabama statutes governing co-employee liability for workplace injuries.[12]  In the article, Campbell explained that Alabama treats co-employee liability extremely narrowly and that “co-employee claims are generally difficult for plaintiffs to win.”[13]

One unusual topic of Campbell’s more recent writings is drones.  Specifically, Campbell has written extensively on the potential use and regulation of commercial drones.[14]  In these articles, Campbell generally argues for the greater use of drones, noting their potential for medical and police uses.[15]  Campbell also dismisses privacy concerns raised due to the extensive use of drones, noting that there is no “reasonable expectation of privacy in areas that are visible from the air.”[16]

Campbell also maintains a Twitter account.  This account generally focuses on articles and commentary on drone usage and regulations.

Overall Assessment

Generally, district court nominees don’t draw opposition unless they have a history of activism, a controversial paper trail, or serious ethical issues.  Campbell has none of these.  His apolitical background and lack of a judicial paper trail should keep most critics off his back.  Campbell may draw some criticism for his writings on drone technology, but such criticism is unlikely to overcome his strong academic credentials and balanced legal experience.  Even the American Bar Association agrees, rating Campbell “Well Qualified” for a federal judgeship.


[1] The Alabama Lawyer, Department: About Members, Among Firms, 71 Ala. Law. 251 (May 2010).

[2] Stacey Barchender, Why Federal Judge Kevin Sharp Left the Bench in Nashville, Tennessean, Apr. 17, 2017, http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2017/04/17/why-federal-judge-kevin-sharp-left-bench-nashville/100419782/.  

[3] Press Release, President Donald J. Trump Announces Fifth Wave of Judicial Candidates (on file at www.whitehouse.gov) (July 13, 2017).

[4] Ex Parte Walter Indus. Inc., 879 So.2d 547 (Ala. 2003).

[5] Zomba Enterprises, Inc. v. Panorama Records, Inc., 491 F.3d 574 (6th Cir. 2007).

[6] Holmes v. TeleCheck Intern. Inc., No. 3:05-0633 (M.D. Tenn.) (Judge Campbell).

[7] Zayo Group LLC. v. The City of Chattanooga, No. 1:16-cv-00466 (E.D. Tenn.) (Judge Reeves).

[8] William L. Campbell, Jr., Moving Against the Tide: An Analysis of Home School Regulation in Alabama, 52 Ala. L. Rev. 649 (Winter 2001).

[9] See id. at 652-54.

[10] See id. at 658-59.

[11] Id. at 672.

[12] William L. Campbell Jr., Kevin W. Patton, Alabama Code § 25-5-11: A Narrow Cause of Action Against Co-Employees, 64 Ala. Law. 38 (January 2003).  

[13] Id. at 47-48.

[14] See, e.g., Chip Campbell, What is All the Buzz About Drones, Linkedin Pulse, Jan. 29, 2016, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-all-buzz-drones-chip-campbell?trk=mp-reader-card.

[15] See Chip Campbell, Where Can Drones Do Some Good (And Gain Community Acceptance)?, Linkedin Pulse, Feb. 16, 2016, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/where-can-drones-do-some-good-gain-community-chip-campbell?trk=mp-reader-card.

[16] Chip Campbell, Does Drone Technology Present New Threats to Privacy, Linkedin Pulse, March 17, 2016, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/does-drone-technology-present-new-threats-privacy-chip-campbell?trk=prof-post.

Racial Diversity on the Federal Bench: Have We Hit the High Water Mark?

Last week, we discussed the low percentage of women among Trump’s judicial nominees.  This week, we address an equally concerning phenomenon: the low percentage of racial minorities.  President Trump’s first few batches of judicial nominees have the lowest proportion of “nonwhite” judges since the Kennedy Administration.  This portends a dramatic drop in the percentage of minority judges in the federal judiciary.

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), as of August 1, President Trump has nominated only one non-white judge to the federal bench: Judge Amul Thapar. (The nominees submitted on August 3d were not analyzed but are also overwhelmingly white).  This means that under 4% of Trump’s nominees have been racial minorities.  In comparison, 36% of President Obama’s judicial nominees were racial minorities.

Traditionally, Democratic presidents have been more sensitive to racial diversity in federal judicial appointments.  Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama all emphasized diversity when selecting federal judges, and racial minorities achieved key milestones in the federal judiciary during their presidencies.  Nevertheless, Republican presidents in the modern era, including Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, all produced a group of judicial nominees more diverse than those of President Trump.  In fact, even Presidents Nixon and Ford had a slightly higher percentage of nonwhite nominees than President Trump.

According to CRS, minority judges are seeing the first sustained decline of their numbers from the peak they reached in early 2015.  Much of the decline is due to the Republican Senate’s refusal to confirm President Obama’s judicial nominees in the 114th Congress, and cannot be blamed on President Trump.  Nevertheless, unless this Administration makes an affirmative commitment to racial diversity, they will oversee a federal bench with far fewer minority judges.

It is still early and the Trump Administration can rectify this problem.  They can demonstrate a commitment to judicial diversity by identifying and nominating qualified minority candidates to the federal bench.  Such an effort does not have to be at the expense of ideology, as many judicial conservatives on the federal bench are of minority background, include Judges Janice Rogers Brown and Jerome Holmes.  The Administration can identify similar candidates, such as Arizona Supreme Court Justice John Lopez and U.S. District Court Judges Diane Humetawa and Marco Hernandez, and elevate them to the federal court of appeals.

With the end of the August recess, a new wave of nominees is expected next week.  The new nominations will either confirm the trend noted above, or mitigate it.

P.S. Special Thanks to Glenn Sugameli of Judging the Environment for linking me to the CRS data on diversity in judicial nominations.