Wendy Vitter – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

Before her nomination to a federal judgeship, Wendy Vitter was perhaps best known in connection to her husband, former Senator and Congressman David Vitter.  In particular, Wendy was remembered for her participation in a press conference during the D.C. Madam scandal in 2007.[1]  Now a nominee to a federal judgeship, Vitter faces new scrutiny on her professional record and public views.

Background

Vitter was born Wendy Lee Freret Baldwin in 1961 in New Orleans.  Vitter attended Sam Houston State University, graduating in 1982.[2]  She then worked as a substitute teacher and Exercise Instructor for a few months before joining Tulane University Law School, graduating with a J.D. in 1986.[3]

After graduation, Vitter joined the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office as an Assistant District Attorney.[4]  In 1989, she was elevated to become Deputy Chief of Trials and in 1990, she became the Chief of Trials.[5]  In 1992, Vitter joined Abbott & Meeks as an associate.

Vitter left Abbott & Meeks in 1993 and stayed out of the workforce for the next 19 years, supporting her husband as he ran for the state legislature, the U.S. House, and the Senate.  In 2007, both Vitters burst onto the political news scene under less than ideal circumstances, when the Senator’s phone number was uncovered in a sting of the D.C. Madam (a woman charged with running a high-end brothel).[6]  In a high profile news conference, Vitter stood by her husband and assured reporters that she was “proud to be Wendy Vitter.”[7]  Ultimately, the allegations did not affect David Vitter’s 2010 re-election campaign, although some alleged that they helped to sink his gubernatorial campaign in 2015.[8]

In 2012, Vitter rejoined legal practice as a Project Director at The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans.[9]  In 2013, she became General Counsel to the Archdiocese.[10]  She continues to work there to this day.

History of the Seat

Vitter has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  This seat was opened by Judge Helen Ginger Berrigan’s move to senior status on August 23, 2016.  While Berrigan, a left-leaning judge, retired under a Democratic president, the Obama Administration did not put forward a nominee for the vacancy.

Shortly after the election of President Donald Trump, Vitter reached out to Louisiana Senators Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy to express her interest in a federal judgeship.[11]  On April 7, 2017, Vitter interviewed with the White House Counsel’s Office.[12]  In June 2017, Vitter interviewed with a judicial selection committee created by Cassidy, and was selected as a nominee in September 2017.[13]  Vitter was officially nominated on January 23, 2018.[14]

Legal Experience

Vitter began her legal career as a prosecutor in New Orleans under District Attorney Harry Connick Sr.  While she started in juvenile courts, Vitter worked her way up to becoming Chief of Trials, trying over one hundred cases in her five years as a prosecutor.[15]  Among the cases she worked on, Vitter prosecuted Marcus Hamilton for the brutal murder of Father Patrick McCarthy.[16]  During the trial, Hamilton argued that he had killed McCarthy in response to repeated sexual advances made by McCarthy against him.[17]  Despite the argument, Vitter was able to secure the death penalty against Hamilton, which was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court.[18]  Vitter also prosecuted the first capital case in Louisiana where DNA evidence was introduced at trial.[19]

In 1992, Vitter moved to the firm Abbott & Meeks, handling maritime litigation, product liability, and class actions in federal court.[20]  However, she left this position approximately a year later.[21]

In 2013, Vitter rejoined the workforce as General Counsel to the Archdiocese of New Orleans.[22]

In this position, Vitter advises the Archdiocese on legal matters, including compliance with employment laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act, wage and hour regulations, and other laws.[23]  She also represents the Archdiocese in state court and before federal agencies.[24]

Political Activity & Speeches

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Vitter’s marriage to a politician, she has an extensive history of political activity, including over 120 public appearances campaigning for her husband.[25]  Vitter has also served as an unofficial advisor in all of her husband’s campaigns.[26]  She has also donated to the Presidential campaign of former Senator Phil Gramm.[27]

Vitter has been active in the pro-life movement, serving as Honorary Chair for the Notre Dame Seminary Priests for Life luncheon in 2013 and getting the Proudly Pro-Life Award from the New Orleans Right to Life Educational Foundation for her efforts.[28]  In early March, the Alliance for Justice reported that Vitter’s judiciary questionnaire had omitted some of her pro-life activism, specifically two speeches, and participation in a panel.[29]  In the panel in question, Vitter advocated the work of fellow panelist Angela Lanfranchi, and encouraged attendees to pick up and use Lanfranchi’s brochure, The Pill Kills.[30]  The brochure in question suggests that

“women on the contraceptive pill are more likely to die a violent death, because they are more likely to cheat on their male partners, to face fertility problems, to have unhealthy children, and to have poor relationships to their partners” and that this would “influence rates of intimate partner violence.”[31]

Overall Assessment

In opposing judicial nominees, senators generally raise one or more of the following allegations: lack of experience; lack of integrity; and lack of impartiality.  In Vitter’s case, critics may potentially raise all three points against her.  We will evaluate each argument in turn to judge its plausibility and persuasiveness.

Firstly, critics may argue that Vitter lacks the requisite experience to be a federal judge.  The ABA requires a minimum of twelve years of legal practice to be qualified for a federal judicial appointment.  Vitter practiced as a state prosecutor for five years, in private practice for one year, and then as General Counsel for five years, leaving her narrowly short of the ABA’s requirements.  More concerning than the inability to meet the ABA standard, however, is the fact that Vitter’s federal court experience is extremely limited, with Vitter having practiced in federal court only for a year.  Furthermore, none of the matters she worked on during this year, by her own views, were significant enough to warrant inclusion in her Senate Judiciary Questionnaire.

In response, Vitter’s supporters can argue that she has handled over one hundred criminal trials in state court, and numerous civil proceedings as General Counsel.  Furthermore, they can argue that Vitter’s extensive experience in capital cases is particularly apposite to federal court work, as capital cases are notoriously complex and involve intimate knowledge of both facts and law.  As such, they would argue that she is qualified for the federal trial bench.

Secondly, Vitter’s critics may echo the arguments made by the Alliance for Justice, arguing that her failure to properly disclose all of her speeches and panels suggests a willful attempt to deceive the Judiciary Committee.  However, it is important to note that Vitter disclosed over one hundred speeches over a eighteen year period, making it fairly unlikely that the disclosure of 2-3 additional speeches would have been deemed dispositive.  It is far more likely that the speeches were overlooked rather than deliberately omitted.

Thirdly, Vitter’s critics may argue that her long history of partisan advocacy and of pro-life activism suggests an inability to enforce precedents favorable to abortion rights.  They may also argue that Vitter’s endorsement of Lanfranchi’s claims about contraception reflects her embrace of ideology over facts.  Assuming that Vitter, as numerous nominees before her have, will assure the Committee of her commitment to precedent and her understanding that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, Vitter’s backers will likely point to such a commitment as evidence of her ultimate fidelity to the law rather than to her ideology.  They may also attempt to argue, as they have done with others, that attacking Vitter for her pro-life ideology amounts to an attack on her faith.

In looking over the arguments above, it is unlikely that Vitter will be deemed a “consensus” nominee.  However, she is still favored for confirmation for two reasons.  First, the Republican Judiciary Committee senator most likely to turn against a Trump nominee, Sen. John Kennedy, is solidly behind Vitter.  Second, given that many of the senators on both sides of the aisle served with Vitter’s husband, it would be particularly awkward for them to block Vitter’s path to the federal bench.  Relationships are still important in Washington, and as such, Vitter may fare better than a different nominee sharing her background and views.


[1] Griffin Connolly, Vitter’s Wife Nominated by Trump for Federal Judgeship in Louisiana, Roll Call, Jan. 24, 2018, https://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/vitters-wife-nominated-trump-federal-judgeship-louisiana

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

[3] Id.

[4] See id. at 2.

[5] Id.

[6] Dana Milbank, Sex and the Conservative, Wash. Post, July 17, 2007.

[7] Id.

[8] Chris Cillizza, Why Did David Vitter’s Prostitute Problem Kill Him in 2015 and Not in 2010?, Wash. Post, Nov. 23, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/11/23/why-did-david-vitters-prostitution-problem-kill-him-in-2015-and-not-in-2010/?utm_term=.5a8c2d0dddc4.  

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 41.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Press Release, White House, President Donald J. Trump Announces Tenth Wave of Judicial Candidates (January 23, 2018) (on file at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office).  

[15] See Vitter, supra n. 2 at 30-31.

[16] See State v. Marcus Hamilton, 681 So.2d 1217 (La. 1996).

[17] See id. at 1221.

[18] Id. at 1229.

[19] See State v. Steven Quatrevingt, 670 So.2d 197 (La. 1996).

[20] See Vitter, supra n. 2 at 31.

[21] Id. 

[22] Id. 

[23] See id.

[24] See id.

[25] See Vitter, supra n. 2 at 8-25.

[26] Id. at 29.

[28] See Vitter, supra n. 2 at 4.

[29] See Drew Broach, Wendy Vitter’s Nomination Falls Under New Scrutiny For Questionnaire Omissions, New Orleans Times Picayune, Mar. 2, 2018, http://www.nola.com/national_politics/2018/03/wendy_vitter_omissions_judicia.html.

[30] Carter Sherman and Taylor Dolven, A Trump Judge Pick Left Anti-Abortion Speeches Off Her Senate Disclosure Form, Vice News, Mar. 1, 2018, https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/vbpndy/a-trump-judge-pick-left-anti-abortion-speeches-off-her-senate-disclosure-form.  

[31] Id. (quoting The Pill Kills).

1 Comment

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

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