St. Sen. Mark Norris – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee

While the federal judicial appointment process is political, it is unusual for politicians to directly be appointed to the judiciary.  As such, Mark Norris, the Majority Leader of the Tennessee State Senate, has a unique background as a nominee.  While other judges such as Judge Orlando Luis Garcia, Judge Henry Floyd, and Judge William J. Ray have stints as legislators, they all had judicial experience prior to their nominations.  Norris does not.

Background

Mark Saalfield Norris Jr. was born on July 9, 1955 in Akron, Ohio.  Norris received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Colorado College in 1977 and went onto earn his J.D. from the University of Denver College of Law in 1980.  After graduating, Norris joined the Memphis office of Armstrong Allen PLLC. as an associate, working in Tennessee state and federal court litigation.  In 1987, Norris became a partner at the firm.

In 1994, Norris was elected to the Shelby County Commission, which establishes policy and taxation for Shelby County (which covers Memphis).  Norris served on the Commission until 2000, with a stint as the Chairman from 1996 to 1997.

In 2000, Norris was elected to the Tennessee State Senate to represent District 32, representing the heavily Republican Memphis suburbs.  In 2006, Norris was elected to be the Chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, and upon the election of Republicans to the Tennessee Senate Majority, Norris was elected Majority Leader in 2007.  He continues to hold that position.

In 2006, Norris left his partnership at Armstrong Allen, and joined Adams and Reece LLP. as a Special Counsel.  He continues to hold this position.

History of the Seat

Norris has been nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.  This seat opened on March 18, 2017, when Judge Daniel Breen moved to senior status.  In February 2017, Norris was contacted by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to gauge his interest in a federal judicial vacancy.  After Norris confirmed his interest, he interviewed with the White House in March 2017 and was declared the presumed candidate.  Norris was formally nominated on July 13, 2017.

Legal Experience

Setting aside his stint in the state legislature and on the Shelby County Commission, Norris has practiced law at two firms: Armstrong Allen PLLC. and Adams & Reece LLP.  In both positions, Norris handled a general civil litigation practice, focusing on personal injury, commercial, and other civil claims, including insurance defense.  Over the course of his career, Norris has been counsel of record in approximately 600 cases.  For example, Norris served as Chief Counsel for a couple who sued Memphis after the wife broke her ankle near a city library.[1]  Norris also defended various municipalities based on a provision in the Tennessee Constitution requiring all consolidation of municipalities to have a majority of residents both within and without the municipality.[2]

State Legislative Service

As noted above, Norris has served in the Tennessee State Senate since 2000, and as the Majority Leader since 2007.  In this capacity, Norris helps lead the Senate’s agenda, and has ignited controversy in two areas in particular: LGBT rights; and Refugee Resettlement.

LGBT Rights

In 2017, Norris supported a measure that would redefine terms in state law to their “natural and ordinary meaning”, a measure widely viewed as attempting to counter-act the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.[3]  Norris was also part of a group of 53 Republican legislators who sought to intervene in a same-sex divorce case in Knoxville, arguing that they had an interest in the interpretation of the state’s marriage laws.[4]

Refugee Resettlement

Norris has been accused by some of anti-Muslim animus by some organizations based on his strong opposition to the settling of Syrian refugees in Tennessee.[5]  In 2016, Norris sponsored a resolution in the Tennessee Senate demanding that the Attorney General file suit to block the resettlement of refugees in Tennessee.[6]  In defending his actions, Norris cited a news study from the alt-right website Breitbart stating that 27% of refugees resettled in Tennessee between 2011 and 2015 tested positive for latent tuberculosis, noting:

“Public health is at risk, and doing nothing is not an option.”[7]

Norris neglected to mention the fact that, even if the Breitbart sources are accurate, latent tuberculosis is not contagious.[8]

Overall Assessment

There is generally good reason why state legislators are not directly appointed to the federal bench.  As legislating is inherently political, legislators invariably have a long record of controversial actions that can be mined for opposition.  Unfortunately for him, Norris does as well.  Norris’ strong conservative record in the Tennessee Senate and his rhetoric on same-sex marriage and refugee resettlement will certainly be used by opponents to paint him as a bigot.

However, Norris benefits from his thirty seven year long practice history.  He can argue that his representation of personal injury plaintiffs as well as defendants shows a willingness to understand both sides of the law.  Furthermore, Norris benefits from his strong endorsement from Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN).

With Republicans in the majority, Norris remains the odds-on favorite for confirmation.  However, if he fails to adequately address concerns about his views or doubles-down at his hearing, all bets are off.


[1] See Cross v. City of Memphis, Case No. 72984 (Circuit Court of Shelby County), rev’d and remanded, 20 S.W.3d 642 (Tenn. 2000).

[2] Tigrett et al. v. Robert Cooper. et al., 7 F. Supp. 3d 792 (W.D. Tenn. 2014), dismissed as moot, 595 F. App’x 554 (6th Cir. 2014).

[3] Jake Lowary, Senate Passes ‘Natural, Ordinary Meaning’ Bill Slammed by LGBT Groups as Discriminatory, Tennessean, April 27, 2017, http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2017/04/27/senate-passes-natural-ordinary-meaning-bill-slammed-lgbt-groups-discriminatory/100976184/.  

[4] Tom Humphrey, 53 GOP Legislators Want to Intervene in Same-Sex Divorce, Humphrey on the Hill, Sept. 12, 2016, http://knoxblogs.com/humphreyhill/2016/09/12/53-gop-legislators-want-intervene-sex-divorce/.  

[5] See, e.g. Alliance for Justice, AFJ Nominee Report: Mark Norris, https://www.afj.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/AFJ-Norris-Report.pdf.

[6] See Tom Humphrey, Legislators Challenge Refugee Resettlement on Public Health Grounds, Knoxville News Sentinel, June 19, 2016, http://archive.knoxnews.com/news/politics/legislators-challenge-refugee-resettlement-on-public-health-grounds-35a811e3-cf1d-4759-e053-0100007f-383569751.html/.  

[7] See id.

[8] See Latent Tuberculosis, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latent_tuberculosis (last visited Nov. 1, 2017).

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