James C. Ho – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

As a well-respected appellate attorney, James C. Ho is a safe choice for the federal bench.  Furthermore, Ho, who has both a reputation as a solid conservative and impeccable academic credentials, would give the Trump Administration some badly needed diversity in their judicial ranks, as he would be the first Asian American on the Fifth Circuit, and only the third Taiwanese American federal judge.[1]

Background

Ho was born in Taiwan in 1973, immigrating to the U.S. a year later.  Ho received a B.A. with Honors in Public Policy from Stanford University in 1995, and went onto the University of Chicago Law School, graduating with High Honors in 1999.  After graduating, Ho clerked for Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry Edwin Smith, a noted conservative.

In 2001, Ho moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice.  Ho later moved to the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), working under Assistant Attorney General (and now federal judge) Jay Bybee.  In 2003, Ho was hired by newly elected Texas Senator John Cornyn to serve as his Chief Counsel.

In 2005, Ho was hired out of the Senate by Justice Clarence Thomas and served a one-year clerkship with the Justice.  After the clerkship concluded, Ho joined the law firm Gibson Dunn as an Associate.  Just two years later, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott chose Ho to replace the departing Texas Solicitor General (and current U.S. Senator) Ted Cruz.

In 2010, Ho left the Texas Solicitor General’s Office to rejoin Gibson Dunn as a partner in their Dallas office.  Ho currently serves as the co-chair of the firm’s Appellate and Constitutional Law Practice Group.

History of the Seat

Ho has been nominated for a Texas seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.  This seat opened on December 31, 2013 with Judge Carolyn Dineen King’s move to senior status.  King, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter, moved to senior status with three years left in the Obama Administration.  The Administration vetted Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo, who Obama has previously tapped for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, for the vacancy, but ultimately chose not to move forward with the nomination.[2]  Ultimately, no nomination was put forward by the Obama Administration for the vacancy and the seat was left vacant.

The King vacancy, along with a second Texas vacancy opened by the retirement of Judge Emilio Garza, prompted a long negotiation involving Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, as well as Texas Governor Greg Abbott, as the Trump Administration attempted to accommodate four candidates: Ho; Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett; U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor; and appellate attorney Andy Oldham.[3]  Ho and Willett were ultimately nominated on September 28, 2017.[4]

Political Activity

Ho has been a generous donor to Republican candidates.  Cruz and Cornyn have been particular beneficiaries of his largesse, receiving $21806 and $7300 respectively.[5]  Additionally, Ho has contributed to $7600 to Cruz’s PAC, the Jobs, Growth, & Freedom Fund, and smaller contributions to Senators Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, and Tom Cotton.

Legal Experience

While Ho is most celebrated as an appellate litigator, he spent the first five years of his legal career in government, working first for the Department of Justice, and then for Cornyn’s staff.  Notably, in February 2002, Ho drafted a memo to John Yoo, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General at OLC regarding the Interpretations of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.[6]  While the memo has not been made public, a section of it was cited by Yoo in his own memorandum claiming the legality of waterboarding and other interrogation tactics.[7]

During his initial stint as an associate at Gibson Dunn, Ho represented the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) , the Free Market Foundation, and the Texas Eagle Forum in successfully overturning restrictions on campaign money intended to influence the Texas House Speaker’s race.[8]

As Texas Solicitor General, Ho was tasked with representing the State of Texas in proceedings in state and federal court.  During his tenure, Ho argued one case at the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully arguing that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) does not allow for suit against state officials in their private capacity.[9]  Ho also filed amicus briefs supporting the enforcement of the Second Amendment against municipalities in McDonald v. City of Chicago.[10]

Notably, as Solicitor General, Ho was also involved in the defense of the University of Texas’ affirmative action policies, challenged by conservatives who viewed them as discriminating against white applicants.[11]  Ho defended the affirmative action policies as “nuanced, student-by-student analysis.”[12]

After leaving the Texas Solicitor General’s office for Gibson Dunn, Ho took charge of their Appellate and Constitutional Law practice group.  In that capacity, Ho notably was part of the legal team defending the University of Texas’ admission policy at the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the admission policy over charges that it constituted race-based discrimination, accepting Ho’s arguments.[13]

Speeches and Writings

Over the course of his legal career, Ho has both spoken and written on the law and the Constitution. Below are some of the key topics he has addressed.

Birthright Citizenship

Ho is a strong proponent of “birthright citizenship”: the guarantee in the Fourteenth Amendment that all individuals born in the United States gain citizenship, regardless of the legal status of their parents.  In 2007, Ho testified before the Texas Legislature against HB 28, a bill that would strip state services from the children of illegal immigrants, arguing that the bill violates the Fourteenth Amendment.[14]  Furthermore, in a 2006 article, Ho sharply criticized proposals to change birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, noting that “birthright is protected no less for children of undocumented persons than for descendants of Mayflower passengers.”[15]

International Law, War, and Terrorism

In 2003, Ho authored an article responding to critics of the U.S. War in Iraq.[16]  Specifically, Ho argued that critics were mistaken in focusing the legitimacy of the coalition efforts on the presence or absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).[17]  Rather, Ho argued:

“…self-defense justification does not turn on evidence of WMD, but rather on the reasonable expectations and fears of the United States and Coalition partners…”[18]

Additionally, Ho co-authored an article with his old boss John Yoo on international law and terrorism.  In the article, Ho and Yoo argued that the September 11th terrorist attacks and subsequent conflict with Al Qaeda qualifies as a “war” under international law.[19]  They went to argue that, despite this fact, Al Qaeda members are not entitled to “prisoner of war” status or the protections that come with it.[20]

Overall Assessment

Ho would bring a truly unusual background to the federal bench.  He would be one of a handful of naturalized citizens serving on the federal judiciary, as well as one of the few with legislative and executive experience.

However, for all the unique qualities Ho would bring to the bench, he is nonetheless a fairly traditional nomination.  As a former Supreme Court clerk with a long history of appellate advocacy, Ho’s qualifications for the bench are unquestionable.  Further, while Ho is a strong conservative, his willingness to defend affirmative action and birthright citizenship for all shows the ability to reject conservative orthodoxy when it conflicts with the law.

Ultimately, many Democrats may decide that a principled conservative like Ho is the best they can hope for from the Trump Administration.  As such, Ho shouldn’t face the level of confirmation opposition as his co-nominee Willett, and will likely be confirmed swiftly.


[1] Judges Raymond Chen and Theodore Chuang are both Taiwanese American.

[2] Debra Cassens Weiss, 5th Circuit Nominees May Include a GOP Judge, ABA Journal, Dec. 10, 2013, http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/5th_circuit_nominees_may_include_a_gop_judge.  

[3] Zoe Tillman, Political Drama in Texas Has Left Trump Struggling to Fill Court Seats, Buzzfeed, Sept. 19, 2017, https://www.buzzfeed.com/zoetillman/political-drama-in-texas-has-left-trump-struggling-to-fill?utm_term=.faDyjV6gGd#.td4DkPEl10.  

[4] Zoe Tillman, The Stalemate Over Texas Court Vacancies is Over, As Trump Announces Nominess, Buzzfeed, Sept. 28, 2017, https://www.buzzfeed.com/zoetillman/stalemate-over-texas-court-vacancies-ends-as-trump?utm_term=.irqgDE26xn#.oaPzmk365o.  

[6] Al Kamen, Gonzales Witness Under Their Noses, Wash. Post, Jan. 10, 2005.

[7] Alliance for Justice, AJC Nominee Snapshot: James Ho, https://www.afj.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/AFJ-Snapshot-Ho.pdf.  

[8] Laylan Copelin, Outside Cash Allowed in Speaker’s Race, Austin American Statesman, Feb. 27, 2008.

[9] Sossamon v. Texas, 563 U.S. 277 (2011).

[10] 561 U.S. 742 (2010).

[11] Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Judge Struggles with UT Race Bias Lawsuit, Austin American Statesman, May 20, 2008.

[12] See id.

[13] See Fisher v. University of Texas, 579 U.S. __ (2016).

[14] Juan Castillo, Panels Ask: Can State Fix Border Problems, Austin American Statesman, Mar. 29, 2007.

[15] James C. Ho, Defining “American”: Birthright Citizenship and the Original Understanding of the 14th Amendment, 9 Green Bag 2d 367 (Summer 2006).

[16] James C. Ho, International Law and the Liberation of Iraq, 8 Tex. Rev. Law & Pol. 79 (Fall 2003).

[17] Id. at 79-80.

[18] Id. at 83.

[19] James C. Ho, John Yoo, The New York University – University of Virginia Conference on Exploring the Limits of International Law: The Status of Terrorists, 44 Va. J. Int’l L. 207, 209 (Fall 2003).

[20] Id. at 217-18.

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