James Sweeney – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana

A white collar criminal defense attorney and commercial civil litigator from Indianapolis, James Sweeney has been tapped for the federal bench in Indiana’s Southern District, one of Trump’s first district court nominees in a state with a Democratic senator.

Background

A native Hoosier, James Russell Sweeney III was born in Indianapolis in 1961.  In 1979, Sweeney joined the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating with a B.S. in 1983.  He then joined the U.S. Marine Corps as an Officer of Marines, as well as earning certificates of completion from East China Normal University, The Basic School, Naval Flight Officer School, U.S. Air Force Electronic Warfare School, U.S. Navy/Marine Corps EA-6B Fleet Replacement Squadron Training, U.S. Air Force Squadron Officer School, U.S. Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School, Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course, and the NATO Joint Service Advance Electronic Warfare Staff Officer Course.[1]

In 1993, Sweeney matriculated at Notre Dame Law School, graduating in 1996 magna cum laude.  After graduation, Sweeney clerked for Judge John Daniel Tinder on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana,[2] and then for Judge James Ryan on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.  After his clerkships, Sweeney joined Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Indianapolis office as an Associate.  In 2005, he was named a Partner and continues to serve in that capacity today.

History of the Seat

Sweeney has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, to a seat vacated by Judge Sarah Evans Barker on June 30, 2014.  On January 12, 2016, President Obama nominated Winfield Ong, the Criminal Division Chief in the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, to fill the vacancy.[3]  Ong, who had the support of Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly and Republican Senator Dan Coats,[4] received a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 18 and was approved by the Committee unanimously on June 16.[5]  Unfortunately, Ong’s nomination was blocked from a floor vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the vacancy was left unfilled at the end of the Obama Presidency.

In March 2017, Sweeney submitted an application for the vacancy to Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), who replaced Coats.[6]  After interviewing with Young’s staff and with Young, Sweeney was recommended to the White House in late April.[7]  Sweeney interviewed with the White House and the Department of Justice in early May and then with Donnelly’s staff in late June.[8]  Trump formally nominated Sweney on Nov. 1, 2017.

Legal Experience

Sweeney has spent his entire post-clerkship legal career at the firm of Barnes & Thornburg, LLP, handling a mix of commercial litigation, criminal defense, and intellectual property cases.   Sweeney’s time was split approximately evenly between federal court proceedings and administrative actions, as well as between civil and criminal cases.[9]

Among the most notable civil case he handled, Sweeney represented the surviving members and families of the crew of the USS Pueblo, the research ship attacked by North Korean forces in 1968.[10]  Sweeney served as lead plaintiff’s counsel in the case, which ultimately led to a $65 million judgment against the Government of North Korea.[11]  In another case, Sweeney represented Burlington Coat Factory in defending against an infringement action based on a patent on a child’s safety seat buckle.[12]

On the criminal side, Sweeney primarily worked on white collar defense.[13]  Notably, Sweeney represented William Matthews, a former Executive Vice President at Blackwater Worldwide (now Academi), a defense contractring company.[14]  Matthews, along with four other officials, was charged in 2010 after federal officers discovered 22 weapons that had been purchased in violation of federal firearm laws.[15]  However, Sweeney and other defense counsel argued that the purchases had been made at the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).[16]  Ultimately, Matthews ended up pleading to a misdemeanor charge with time served, avoiding the felony violations he had initially been charged with.[17]  The sentence drew criticism from investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler, who described the deal as “an undeserved and inexplicable sweetheart misdemeanor plea.” and suggested that the deal had been a product of “graymail.”[18]

Political Activity

Sweeney, a Republican, has served as a delegate to the Indiana State Republican Convention and as a Marion County Precinct Judge.[19]  The vast majority of Sweeney’s contributions are directed to fellow Republicans.[20]  For example, Sweeney has given to many Indiana Republicans including Coats, Young, former senator Richard Lugar, Gov. Eric Holcomb and Representatives Luke Messer, Todd Rokita, Larry Buschon, and Susan Brooks.[21]  All in all, since 2003, Sweeney has given more than $87000 to Republican candidates, organizations, and PACs, including almost $20000 to Young.[22]

Sweeney has also made a few contributions to Indiana Democrats, including a $1000 contribution to Donnelly, $250 to former senator Evan Bayh, and $250 to House candidate Scott Reske.[23]  Interestingly, in each of the above examples, Sweeney also donated to the Democrat’s Republican opponent.

Overall Assessment

As a well-credential federal litigator, Sweeney has a fairly typical background for a judicial nominee.  Furthermore, he does not have a record of controversial statements or blog posts similar to those that have brought down other nominees.

Senators who ultimately vote against Sweeney will likely do so for one of two reasons.  First, they may cite the criticisms made by Wheeler regarding his representation of Matthews.  Second, they may balk at his extensive political contributions, making criticisms similar to those made against Obama appointee John McConnell in 2010.[24]  Ultimately, both arguments have easy counters.  First, supporters can argue that, as a criminal defense attorney, Sweeney has the ethical responsibility to engage in zealous representation.  As such, barring any unethical conduct on his part, it would be unfair to hold his representation of an unpopular client against him.  Second, supporters can note that engaging in political contributions is a form of First Amendment activity.  Barring a quid pro quo, punishing a nominee for making too many contributions would be akin to punishing a nominee for writing too many editorials or engaging in too many protests.

Overall, it is likely that Sweeney will see a smooth confirmation.  After all, if Sweeney comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it’ll be because Donnelly has returned a blue slip on his behalf.  In such a case, Sweeney will have at least one Democrat in his corner.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., James R. Sweeney II: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1-2.

[2] Tinder was later elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

[3] Press Release, White House, President Obama Nominates Winfield D. Ong to Serve on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana (Jan. 12, 2016) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov).  

[4] Press Release, Office of Sen. Joe Donnelly, Donnelly and Coats Pleased Senate Judiciary Committee Will Hold Hearing on U.S. District Court Nominee Winfield Ong (May 16, 2016) (on file at https://www.donnelly.senate.gov/newsroom/press/).

[5] Michael Macagnone, Senate Panel Advances 4 Federal Judges, Hints at Floor Votes, Law 360, June 16, 2016, https://www.law360.com/articles/807489/senate-panel-advances-4-federal-judges-hints-at-floor-votes.

[6] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., James R. Sweeney II: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 37.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] See id. at 19-20.

[10] Massie v. Gov’t of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 592 F. Supp. 2d 57 (D.D.C. 2008).

[11] Rebecca Berfanger, Justice a Long Time Coming; Lawyers Win $65 Million for Tortured Crew, The Indiana Lawyer, Jan. 21, 2009.

[12] Galbreath v. Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse of Arundel, Inc., No. 1:03-cv-0555 (D. Md. Dec. 22, 2003).

[13] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., James R. Sweeney II: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 20.

[14] United States v. Jackson, Case No. 2:10-cr-00008-FL (E.D.N.C. Feb. 21, 2013) (case dismissed pursuant to plea agreement).

[15] James Risen and Mark Mazzetti, Case Ends Against Ex-Blackwater Officials, N.Y. Times, Feb. 21, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/22/us/case-ends-against-five-ex-blackwater-officials.html.  

[16] See id.

[17] Id.

[18] Marcy Wheeler, DOJ Gives Blackwater a Whitewash on Felony Charges, Emptywheel, Feb. 21, 2013, https://www.emptywheel.net/2013/02/21/doj-gives-blackwater-a-whitewash-on-felony-charges/.

[19] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., James R. Sweeney II: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 17.

[21] See id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] John O’Brien, Obama’s Judicial Picks Sent Back to Senate, Legal News Line, Sept. 15, 2010, https://legalnewsline.com/stories/510523503-obama-s-judicial-picks-sent-back-to-senate.  

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