John Nalbandian – Nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

So far, the Trump Administration has moved relatively quickly to fill vacancies on the Court of Appeals.  However, the nomination of John Nalbandian to the Sixth Circuit was seemingly finalized in supernatural speed, coming just two days after Judge John Rogers announced his intent to move to senior status.  This speed is a sign that Nalbandian was being vetted before the vacancy was announced, potentially for the Ohio seat vacated by Judge Alice Batchelder.

Background

John Baylor Nalbandian was born in 1969 in Fort Ord, California.[1]  After getting a B.S. magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania and a J.D. from the University of Virginia Law School, Nalbandian clerked for Judge Jerry Edwin Smith on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.[2]  After his clerkship, Nalbandian joined the Washington D.C. office of Jones Day.

In 2000, Nalbandian moved from Jones Day to the Cincinnati office of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.[3]  He became a partner there in 2004 and continues to serve in that capacity today.

In 2010, upon the recommendation of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Nalbandian was appointed by President Obama to serve on the board of directors of the State Justice Institute (SJI), a nonprofit organization focused on improving resources for judges and court staff.[4]  Nalbandian continues to serve as a director.

History of the Seat

Nalbandian has been nominated for a Kentucky seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.  This seat opened in January 2018 with Judge John Rogers’ announcement that he would move to senior status upon confirmation of his successor.  However, Nalbandian had been under consideration for a federal judgeship as far back as November 2016, when he first began talking to McConnell about a judicial appointment.[5]  While he interviewed with McConnell in January 2017, he wasn’t contacted by the White House until September (approximately when Judge Alice Batchelder announced her move to senior status in an Ohio seat).  Nalbandian interviewed with the White House and the Department of Justice in October 2017, and was nominated on January 24, 2018.

Political Activity

Nalbandian is a Republican and has a long history with the Kentucky Republican party, including serving as the Party’s General Counsel between 2010 and 2016, and serving as a Delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention.[6]  Nalbandian also advised and volunteered on the campaigns of several Kentucky Republicans including those of McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Andy Barr, Rep. James Comer, and former State Senate President David Williams.[7]

Nalbandian has also been an active donor to Republicans, having given almost $15000 over the last thirteen years.[8]  Barr has been a particular beneficiary of the donations, having received $3250 of the donations.[9]  Nalbandian has also donated to other Republicans including Senators Todd Young and Tom Cotton.[10]

Nalbandian has been active in the Federalist Society for the past twenty seven years, including serving as President of the Cincinnati Lawyers Chapter from 2000 to 2008, and serving as an Advisory Board Member from 2010 to the present.[11]

Legal Experience

Nalbandian has practiced law for around twenty five years, cutting his teeth by representing a habeas petitioner as a law student at the University of Virginia.[12]  In his time at Jones Day and at Taft Stettinius, Nalbandian has specialized in appellate practice, representing businesses on commercial, environmental, labor, and other matters.[13]  For example, Nalbandian helped defend the brand name manufacturers of Percocet in a series of class-action lawsuits borne out of injuries caused by the drug.[14]  Throughout his career, Nalbandian has handled a vast array of cases.  We summarize some of them below:

Criminal Defense

Nalbandian has developed a thriving criminal defense practice, working on many white collar criminal defense matters.[19]  Notably, he has also represented capital and habeas defendants pro bono.  For example, Nalbandian represented an Ohio death penalty petitioner in seeking a new sentencing hearing.[20]  In challenging the death penalty sentence, Nalbandian successfully argued that the petitioner did not receive the effective assistance of his counsel at the penalty phase of his trial, leading to the Sixth Circuit reversing the death penalty on a 2-1 vote.[21]

Environmental Pollution & Toxic Torts

Nalbandian has represented many businesses in suits over environmental pollution or toxic torts, typically seeking to shield the business from penalties or civil damages.  In one suit, Nalbandian represented a steel company seeking to reverse damages assigned to plaintiffs based on “fugitive dust” that had migrated to the plaintiffs’ properties.[15]  However, Nalbandian has also represented plaintiffs in contamination and toxic tort actions, in one case, suing on behalf of plaintiffs who had consumed contaminated water in West Virginia.[16]

Local Government

Throughout his career, Nalbandian has also occasionally represented municipalities in zoning and other such suits.[17]  In one of his more prominent cases, Nalbandian represented Northern Ohio municipalities in an unsuccessful challenge to the regional stormwater management program implemented by the Sewer District.[18]

Election Law

As part of his election law practice, Nalbandian represented Hamilton County Judge John Williams in a contentious election challenge.[22]  In the 2010 elections, Williams was challenged by Democrat Tracie Hunter, and was certified as the winner with a narrow lead in the final vote count.  However, Hunter challenged the results, arguing that 849 provisional ballots were erroneously thrown out due to poll worker error.[23]  When outgoing Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, stepped in to offer guidance in reviewing the 849 disputed ballots, Nalbandian sued on Williams’ behalf, successfully getting the Republican-dominated Ohio Supreme Court to step in and block Brunner’s guidance.[24]

In response to the Ohio Supreme Court’s intervention, Hunter filed a federal suit, and U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott granted a preliminary injunction in Hunter’s favor to count the disputed ballots.[25]  When Nalbandian appealed, a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit affirmed the injunction,[26] and with the recounting of 149 additional ballots, Hunter was declared the winner of the election.

Academic Judgment

In one of his more unusual cases, Nalbandian represented the Case Western Reserve University in seeking to revoke a medical school diploma given to one of its students.[27]  The plaintiff in the case, Amir Al-Dabagh, had fulfilled all the academic requirements for a medical degree.[28]  However, the Medical School declined to give him a degree, citing numerous “professionalism” violations, including incurring a DUI in North Carolina.[29]  Al-Dabagh filed suit, arguing that the failure to give him a medical degree violated its state law duties of fair dealing and good faith, and U.S. District Judge James Gwin ruled in his favor.[30]  However, Nalbandian filed an appeal and was able to convince the Sixth Circuit to reverse the ruling.  Writing for the court, Judge Jeffrey Sutton found that the Medical School’s decision not to award the degree based on “professionalism” was an “academic judgment” that could not be second-guessed by the court.[31]

Overall Assessment

Kentucky nominees to the Sixth Circuit have not had the smoothest confirmations under Trump, with both Judges Thapar and Bush being confirmed by narrow partisan margins.  While Nalbandian has already been unanimously confirmed by the senate once, this does not necessarily portend an easy confirmation for him this time around.  The State Justice Institute, while important, focuses on education rather than shaping law or policy.  As such, it is unlikely that Democrats, who were willing to confirm Nalbandian to the SJI, will be equally accommodating when the prize is a lifetime appointment one step below the supreme court.

Furthermore, Nalbandian is active in the Federalist Society, and the conservative legal organization has become a a bete noire for Senate Democrats.  As such, it is likely that Nalbandian will see significantly more opposition to this nomination than he did eight years ago.

That being said, unlike the previous two nominees to the Sixth Circuit from Kentucky, Nalbandian lacks both a judicial paper trail and a bevy of controversial statements that can be mined for opposition research.  Furthermore, unlike most Trump nominees, Nalbandian has worked with diversity-based legal organizations, including as an active member of the Greater Cincinnati Minority Counsel Program  and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.  His active role in the Asian American legal community and his pro bono work should also deflect criticism.

Overall, while Nalbandian may not see the unanimous support he received eight years ago, he will likely be confirmed with a bipartisan majority.  His expected confirmation will make him the second Asian Pacific American on the Sixth Circuit, and will help secure the court’s conservative majority.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., John Nalbandian: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] See id.

[4] See The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah Court Official Appointed by Obama to National Board, The Salt Lake Tribune, July 1, 2010.

[5] See Nalbandian, supra n. 1 at 25.

[6] See id. at 11.

[7] See id. at 11-12.

[9] See id.

[10] See id.

[11] See Nalbandian, supra n. 1 at 4.

[12] In re: Burnley, 998 F.2d 1 (4th Cir. 1992).

[13] See Nalbandian, supra n. 1 at 13.

[14] See Germain et al. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., 756 F.3d 917 (6th Cir. 2014).

[15] Ellis et al. v. Gallatin Steel Co., 390 F.3d 461 (6th Cir. 2004).

[16] See Rhodes et al. v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co., 636 F.3d 88 (4th Cir. 2011).

[17] See, e.g., John K. Bush, A Better Approach to Civil Litigation Reform,

[18] See Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer Dist. v. Bath Twnship, 44 N.E.3d 246 (Ohio 2015).

[19] See, e.g., United States v. Romanini, 502 Fed. Appx. 503 (6th Cir. 2012).

[20] See Frazier v. Huffman, 348 F.3d 174 (6th Cir. 2003).

[21] See Frazier v. Huffman, 343 F.3d 780, 801 (6th Cir. 2003).

[22] See Hunter v. Hamilton Cnty. Bd. of Elections, 635 F.3d 219 (6th Cir. 2011).

[23] See id. at 226.

[24] The State ex rel. Painter et al. v. Brunner, 941 N.E.2d 782 (Ohio 2011).

[25] See Hunter v. Hamilton Cnty. Bd. of Elections, No. 10-00820-Dlott, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 128434 (S.D. Ohio, Nov. 22, 2010).

[26] See Hunter v. Hamilton Cnty. Bd. of Elections, 635 F.3d 219 (6th Cir. 2011).

[27] See Al-Dabagh v. Case Western Reserve University, 777 F.3d 355 (6th Cir. 2015).

[28] See id. at 358.

[29] See id.

[30] See id. at 358-59.

[31] See id. at 360.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: On the “Correctness” of Brown v. Board of Education | The Vetting Room

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