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.

Gordon Giampietro – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin

Last year, Gordon Giampietro was nominated by President Trump to be a federal judge upon the recommendation of Wisconsin’s U.S. Senators, indicating a comfortable nomination.  As such, when news broke of controversial statements made by Giampietro in interviews and online comments and of allegations that the statements were not properly disclosed in the nomination process, many felt that this latest controversy had derailed his nomination.  However, even without the reported statements, Giampietro’s record shows involvement in several political flashpoints, suggesting that his confirmation was always unlikely to be smooth.

Background

Gordon Peter Giampietro was born on October 19, 1965, in Washington D.C.  Giampietro spent much of his formative years in D.C., attending The Catholic University of America and The Catholic University Columbus School of Law, getting his J.D. in 1992 with a Comparative and International Law Certificate.  In between his undergraduate education and law school, Giampietro worked at The Connecticut Avenue Club Hotel as the Assistant Manager.[1]  After graduating law school, Giampietro moved to Wisconsin to clerk for Judge Rudolph Randa on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, serving as the newly appointed conservative’s first law clerk.[2]

After his clerkship, Giampietro joined the Milwaukee Office of Michael, Best & Friedrich LLP as a Litigation Associate.[3]  In 2000, he was named a Litigation Partner at the firm.  In 2002, Giampietro left the firm to join the U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Division, serving as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Wisconsin.[4]  Additionally, in 2007, Giampietro became the Bankruptcy Fraud Coordinator for the Office.  In 2010, Giampietro gave up that position and became the Criminal Health Care Fraud Coordinator and Deputy Elections Officer.[5]

In 2015, Giampietro left the government to join the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company as Assistant General Counsel.[6]  He serves in that role today.

History of the Seat

Giampietro has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, to a seat vacated on February 5, 2016, by Judge Rudolph Randa (for whom Giampietro had clerked).  Interestingly, Randa had expressed his interest in moving to senior status back in 2007, and the Bush Administration had nominated state judge Timothy Dugan to replace him.[7]  However, Dugan was never confirmed by the then-Democratic senate, and, after the election of President Obama, Randa reversed his desire to go on senior status.

In February 2017, Wisconsin senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, announced the renewal of their bipartisan Judicial Nominating Commission.  Giampietro submitted an application to the Committee on May 30th.[8]  He interviewed with the Committee in July and his name, alongside three others, was submitted to the White House in August 2017.[9]  After interviews with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, Giampietro was nominated on December 20, 2017.

Legal Experience

Excluding his time as a clerk, Giampietro has split his career between working as a federal prosecutor and working in private practice.

Private Practice

In his first position out of his clerkship, Giampietro managed corporate litigation as an associate and a partner at Michael Best.[10]  Notably, Giampietro was able to dismiss a tort action brought by the estate of a worker killed by a vertical boring mill, by successfully arguing, as a matter of first impression, that Wisconsin law did not permit suits against brokers of second hand industrial equipment.[11]

In addition to his corporate work, Giampietro also participated in more controversial cases.  For example, Giampietro represented the Republican leaders in the Wisconsin House and Senate in the lawsuit over Wisconsin’s legislative districts.[12]  Giampietro also represented the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce in an unsuccessful challenge to a Milwaukee labor ordinance requiring county contractors to sign “labor peace agreements” with unions.[13]

However, Giampietro’s most politically charged case was his representation of Munir Hamdan, a grocery store owner seeking the right to carry a concealed weapon to protect his store.[14]  Hamdan was charged with carrying a concealed weapon in violation of Wisconsin law, but his conviction was reversed in a 5-2 vote of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who held that Hamdan’s conviction violated the Right to Bear Arms in the Wisconsin Constitution.[15]

Department of Justice

From 2002 to 2015, Giampietro worked as a prosecutor at the Department of Justice through the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.  In this role, Giampietro handled the prosecutions of both violent offenders and white collar criminals.[16]  Notably, Giampietro prosecuted Kimberly Prude, a convicted felon, for casting a ballot in the 2004 elections.[17]  Prude had cast a ballot while on supervised release from a forgery conviction.[18]  Upon discovering that she was ineligible to vote, Prude contacted the Election Commission and attempted to withdraw her ballot only to be told “not to worry about it.”[19]  Despite the fact that she herself had reported the mistake and had attempted to withdraw the ballot, Prude was nonetheless prosecuted and convicted of voter fraud.[20]  During the trial, Prude was not permitted to present witnesses to testify as to her efforts to withdraw her ballot, while the government was allowed to testify on the subject.[21]  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed that Judge Rudolph Randa had erred in his evidentiary rulings but found that the errors did not require reversal under “plain error” review.[22]

Giampietro was also central to a conflict between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and federal judge J.P. Stadtmueller.  In 2008, Giampietro was prosecuting Rashid Salahuddin for being a felon in possession of a firearm, a case that had, at the time, been pending for three years.[23]  On October 9, 2008, Stadtmueller, who was overseeing the case, called U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic and Federal Defender Daniel Stiller into his chambers for a meeting without the court reporter present.[24]  At the meeting, Stadtmueller expressed concern as to the length and litigation costs in the case and suggested that the parties resolve the issue without further litigation.[25]  In response to this meeting, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a motion for Stadtmueller to recuse himself from the case, alleging bias against Giampietro and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.[26]  Stadtmueller, a former U.S. Attorney, declined to recuse himself and granted motions to suppress in the defendant’s favor.[27]  Giampietro appealed the recusal motion to the Seventh Circuit, who forced Stadtmueller off the case, citing that Stadtmueller “suggested that the case was an embarrassment to the justice system and an inefficient allocation of taxpayer resources” in his remarks.[28]  The removal prompted Stadtmueller to take the unprecedented step of declining all future criminal cases, suggesting that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was using recusal to engage in “judge shopping.”[29]

Writings, Interviews, and Expressed Views

Over his career, Giampietro has occasionally commented on issues of law and policy, both in writing, and through interviews and speeches.

Expressed Political Views in Interviews

On February 2015, 2018, Zoe Tillman at Buzzfeed broke the story that Giampietro had, in his writings and interviews, made “disparaging comments about diversity, same-sex relationships, and birth control.”[30]  Specifically, in a 2015 radio interview, Giampietro stated that it was “irrefutable” that children were best-raised by heterosexual couples and that same-sex relationships were troubled.[31]  In other comments, Giampietro referred to the birth control pill as an “assault on nature” and suggested that diversity was “code for relaxed standards.”[32]  In response to the story, Baldwin indicated that the statements had not been disclosed to the Evaluation Commission and that they “raise serious questions about whether this nominee would be able to serve as a fair and impartial judge.”[33]

In response, Giampietro wrote to Baldwin privately arguing that the article “reads like an attack on my Catholic faith.”[34]  Additionally, five Wisconsin based Catholic bishops wrote to Baldwin arguing that Giampietro was “not receiving a fair hearing because of his Catholic faith.”[35]  Furthermore, members of the Evaluation Commission disagreed as to the significance of the undisclosed statements, with Republican member Rick Esenberg arguing that the statements were irrelevant while Democratic member Barbara Quindel indicating that the Commission would not have recommended Giampietro if they had known about the statements.[36]

“Moral Force” of Judicial Decisions

In 2003, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, upheld a $3.5 million punitive damages award against an insurance company, finding as a matter of law, that the insurance company had acted in bad faith in failing to inform the insured of a mutual mistake in the insurance contract.[37]  The decision was criticized by some attorneys, including many conservatives.[38]  In response to the criticism, George Burnett, President of the Wisconsin Bar, authored a President’s Message urging members of the Bar to defend the Court against “political attacks.”  In response, Giampietro wrote a response, arguing that Burnett overstepped in arguing that Courts rule by “moral force.”[39]  He noted that “[w]hen the judicial branch abandons ‘the idea of law,’ it forfeits the right to claim that its decisions are imbued with a ‘moral force.’”[40]  In response, Burnett countered that Giampietro’s piece misinterpreted his own and noted that “when one ascribes political motives as a substitute for a legal critique of judicial decisions, one undermines public confidence in our judiciary.”[41]

Political Activity & Memberships

On May 22, 2017, Giampietro donated $1000 to Sen. Ron Johnson.[42]  The contributions were made approximately a week before Giampietro applied for a federal judgeship with Johnson and Baldwin’s Selection Committee.

Giampietro has been a member of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies (a conservative legal society that has produced many Trump judicial nominees) since 1989, serving as the President of the Milwaukee Chapter between 1995 and 1997.[43]

Overall Assessment

It is undeniable that Giampietro is an exceptional lawyer, with significant experience in both civil and criminal law.  As such, it is unlikely that critics of the nomination will raise substantive objections to his qualifications.  Instead, they may object to Giampietro’s temperament and impartiality, relying on the statements reported on by Buzzfeed, his membership in the Federalist Society, his involvement in politically charged cases including the Hamdan case, and, potentially, his conduct in the Prude and Salahuddin cases.

In contrast, Giampietro’s supporters are likely to try a tactic that worked well for then-nominee Amy Coney Barrett in 2017: accusing Giampietro’s critics of anti-Catholic bias.  They will argue, as Giampietro already has, that his views on LGBT relationships and birth control are integral to his faith and that attacking those views is tantamount to imposing a religious test for federal judges.

Ultimately, the Constitution forbids a religious test for public office, and, additionally, public opinion stands strongly by that principle.  As such, to disqualify Giampietro, critics will have to make an additional point in their case, that Giampietro would be unable to set aside his views (religious or otherwise) to rule based on the law and precedent.  The future of Giampietro’s nomination ultimately depends on whether Sen. Baldwin is convinced on this point.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., Gordon Giampietro: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 2.

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] See id.

[7] Giampietro had applied to fill that vacancy but was not selected.

[8] See id. at 28.

[9] See id.

[10] See id. at 12.

[11] See Geboy v. TRL, Inc., 976 F. Supp. 1202 (E.D. Wis. 1997), aff’d, 159 F.3d 993 (7th Cir. 1998).

[12] See Arrington v. Elections Bd., 173 F. Supp. 2d 856 (E.D. Wis. 2001).

[13] See Metropolitan Milwaukee Assoc. Of Commerce v. Milwaukee Cnty., 201 F. Supp. 2d 942 (E.D. Wis. 2002).

[14] See State of Wisconsin v. Hamdan, 665 N.W.2d 785 (Wis. 2003).

[15] See id. at 478 (concluding that the right to keep and bear arms is at an apex when protecting a home or a business).

[16] See Giampietro, supra n. 1 at 11.

[17] See United States v. Prude, 489 F.3d 873 (7th Cir. 2007).

[18] See id. at 875.

[19] Id.

[20] See id. at 876.

[21] See id. at 878-81.

[22] See id. at 881.

[23] See In re: United States of America, 572 F.3d 301, 305 (7th Cir. 2009).

[24] See id. 

[25] See id.

[26] See id. at 305-06.

[27] See United States v. Salahuddin, 607 F. Supp. 2d 930 (E.D. Wis. 2009), motion for reconsideration denied, 608 F. Supp. 2d 1061 (E.D. Wis. 2009).

[28] In re: United States of America, 572 F.3d 301, 311 (7th Cir. 2009).

[29] John Diedrich, U.S. Judge Stadtmueller Not Taking New Criminal Cases, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Aug. 23, 2009, http://archive.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/54417857.html/.  

[30] Zoe Tillman, One of Trump’s Judicial Nominees Once Wrote That Diversity is “Code for Relaxed Standards”, BuzzFeed News, Feb. 15, 2018, https://www.buzzfeed.com/zoetillman/one-of-trumps-judicial-nominees-once-wrote-that-diversity?utm_term=.bunlpv57b#.ferWeqXP9.  

[31] See id.

[32] See id. (citing Giampietro’s comments).

[33] See id. (quoting Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s spokesperson).

[34] Bill Glauber and Daniel Bice, Catholic Bishops Call on Tammy Baldwin Not to Block Judicial Nomination of Gordon Giampietro, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 27, 2018, https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/2018/02/27/catholic-bishops-call-tammy-baldwin-not-block-nomination-gordon-giampietro-federal-bench/377622002/.

[35] See id. (quoting Letter from The Bishops of the State of Wisconsin to Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Feb. 20, 2018)).

[36] See id.

[37] See Trinity Evangelical v. Tower Ins. Co., 661 N.W.2d 789 (Wis. 2003).

[38] See, e.g., Robert J. Dreps & Katherine Stadler, Insurance Bad Faith: Failure to Reform Policy Based on Agent Error May Constitute Bad Faith as a Matter of Law, Godfrey & Kahn S.C. Blog, May 28, 2003, http://www.gklaw.com/newsupdatespressreleases/Insurance-Bad-Faith-Failure-to-Reform-Policy-Based-on-Agent-Error-May-Constitute-Bad-Faith-as-a-Matter-of-Law-2003-05-28-1.htm (describing decision as “puzzling” and “at odds” with Supreme Court precedent).

[39] Gordon P. Giampietro, Ruling by Moral Force?, Wis. Lawyer (Feb. 2004), https://www.wisbar.org/NewsPublications/WisconsinLawyer/Pages/Article.aspx?Volume=77&Issue=2&ArticleID=734.  

[40] See id.

[41] See George Burnett, Response to Ruling by Moral Force?, Wis. Lawyer (Feb. 2004), https://www.wisbar.org/NewsPublications/WisconsinLawyer/Pages/Article.aspx?Volume=77&Issue=2&ArticleID=734.

[42] Center for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/donor-lookup/results?name=gordon+giampietro (last visited Feb. 25, 2018).

[43] See id. at 4.