Judge Susan Brnovich – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona

Judge Susan Brnovich, a well-respected state judge in Arizona, has been nominated to the federal bench upon the recommendation of Arizona’s Republican senators.  It is a promotion she is likely to get.


Brnovich was born Susan Marie Skibba in 1968 in Madison, WI.  Brnovich graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1990 and then jointly attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and Graduate School, getting a J.D. and an M.S. in Business in 1994.[1]

After graduation, Brnovich spent a year working as a bartender at an Applebee’s in Tempe, Arizona. She then joined the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office as a Deputy County Attorney.[2]  In 2003, she joined the Maricopa County Superior Court as a Commissioner, handling certain uncontested cases and other assigned matters.[3]  In 2009, Brnovich was appointed to the Court as a Superior Court Judge by Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano.[4]  She continues to serve on that Court.

In 2012, Brnovich applied for appointment to the Arizona Supreme Court, for the vacancy opened by the elevation of Justice Andrew Hurwitz to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.[5]  Brnovich was not selected as one of the three finalists, and the seat went to Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Ann Scott Timmer.

History of the Seat

Brnovich has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.  This seat opened on July 5, 2016, when Judge Neil Vincent Wake moved to senior status.  As the seat opened with only six months left in President Obama’s presidency, no nomination was ever made to fill the seat.

In early 2017, Brnovich applied for the judgeship with a selection committee put together by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake.[6]  She then interviewed with the committee in March and was selected unanimously as a finalist for the District Court, alongside five other candidates.[7]

Brnovich interviewed with the White House Counsel’s Office in April 2017.[8]  President Trump nominated her on January 24, 2018.[9]

Legal Career

Brnovich has spent her entire pre-bench legal career as a Deputy County Attorney for Maricopa County.  As a state prosecutor, Brnovich gained experience working with misdemeanors, felonies, and domestic violence cases.[10]  During her seven years as a prosecutor, Brnovich tried 49 jury trials and one bench trial.[11]

Notably, Brnovich prosecuted and secured the death penalty against a father who burned his two year old daughter to death.[12]  She also prosecuted Scottsdale abortion doctor Dr. John Biskind for the death of one of his patients after a ruptured uterus sustained during an abortion.[13]  The doctor was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.[14]

Jurisprudence and Reversals

Brnovich has served as a Superior Court judge since her appointment in 2009.  In this role, she serves as a primary trial judge, supervising criminal and civil cases.  Over the last nine years, Brnovich has presided over approximately 100 trials, including approximately 70 jury trials.[15]  Among her more notable decisions, Brnovich sentenced a man convicted of beating an 81-year-old monk to death to 21 years in prison,[16] tossed a Republican state legislative candidate off the ballot due to the failure to submit enough valid signatures,[17] and reversed the indictment of a Phoenix man charged with live streaming the rape of a passed-out woman, finding that the prosecution had erred by informing the grand jury that the defendant had exercised his right to remain silent.[18]

Over the course of her nine year tenure on the state bench, Brnovich has been reversed by higher courts in five cases.[19]  Of those five reversals, in two cases, Brnovich’s rulings on issues of family support in divorce cases were reversed by the Arizona Court of Appeals.[20]  Another two cases involved reversals of convictions based on trial errors made by Brnovich.[21]  The final case reversed a sentence granted by Brnovich based on a subsequent superseding precedent that changed the law.[22]

Political Activity

Brnovich has a fairly limited political history, having donated to the Arizona Republican Party once in 2002.[23]

In 2014, while Brnovich was a sitting state judge, her husband Mark ran for and won the election to be Arizona’s Attorney General.  During the election, Brnovich refrained from campaigning on behalf of her husband but did attend some election events and appeared in a campaign video.[24]

Overall Assessment

Looking at Brnovich’s overall record, it is unlikely that she will face much opposition in the confirmation process.  With almost a decade on the state court bench and a dozen years of legal experience before, she is unquestionably qualified for a federal appointment.  Furthermore, her record on the state bench is fairly uncontroversial and she has shown a willingness to rule against Republican interests.  It is also unlikely that her prosecution of Dr. Biskind will be used against her, as her prosecution was based, not on the abortion itself, but on the lack of medical treatment offered to the patient.  Furthermore, as a line prosecutor, Brnovich was likely not the last word on charging decisions in high profile cases.

Given these factors, Brnovich should be confirmed fairly comfortably, adding another conservative voice to the Arizona federal bench.

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

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Gary Grado, Arizona Supreme Court Vacancy Attracts 14 Applicants, The Arizona Capitol Times, July 19, 2012.

[6] Brnovich, supra n. 1 at 26.

[7] Jeremy Duda, The Flake and McCain Seal of Approval, Yellow Sheet Report, Apr. 24, 2017.

[8] See Brnovich, supra n. 1 at 26.

[9] Press Release, White House, President Donald J. Trump Announces Tenth Wave of Judicial Candidates (Feb. 12, 2018) (on file at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/07/13/president-donald-j-trump-announces-tenth-wave-judicial-candidates).  

[10] See Brnovich, supra n. 1 at 18-19.

[11] Id. at 19.

[12] State v. Grell, CR1999-095294 (Ariz. Super. Ct.).

[13] State v. Biskind, CR1999-000198 (Ariz. Super. Ct.).

[14] Scottsdale Abortion Doctor Sentenced to Five Years in Prison, Arizona Daily Sun, May 4, 2001, http://azdailysun.com/scottsdale-abortion-doctor-sentenced-to-five-years-in-prison/article_d08ec172-9b1c-55da-9a1f-b94c9f9ada55.html.  

[15] See Brnovich, supra n. 1 at 8.

[16] Mike Sakal, 21 Years for Man Convicted of Mesa Assault, Attempted Murder of Former Monk, East Valley Tribune, Feb. 27, 2012.

[17] Ben Giles, Judge Tosses Begody-Begay From Election Ballot, Arizona Capital Times, June 24, 2016.

[18] Gary Grado, Judge: Rape Suspect’s Rights Violated, East Valley Tribune, Jan. 30, 2010.

[19] Brnovich, supra n. 1 at 15-16.

[20] See Egizii v. Egizii, No. 1 CA-CV 17-0199 (Ariz. Ct. App. Apr. 12, 2018) (reversing and remanding for specific finding on how parties are to split the proceeds from the sale of the home); In re Marriage of Gersten, 219 P.3d 309 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2009) (reversing rulings on child support).

[21] See State v. Stuart, No. 1 CA-CR 12-0340 (Ariz. Ct. App. Aug. 13, 2013) (reversing conviction due to improper expert testimony); State v. Bunting, 250 P.3d 1201 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2011) (reversing conviction based on improper colloquy as part of defendant’s waiver of jury rights).

[22] State v. Thomas, No. 1 CA-CR 11-0250 (Ariz. Ct. App. July 12, 2012).

[24] See Brnovich, supra n. 1 at 17.

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