David Morales – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas

David Morales is Trump’s second hispanic judicial nominee to come before the Senate Judiciary Committee, after fellow S.D. Tex. nominee Fernando Rodriguez.  Unlike Rodriguez, however, who worked primarily in human rights law, Morales was a longtime litigator with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, working closely with Sens. John Cornyn, Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott, among others.  He also served as General Counsel to then-Gov. Rick Perry (now the Secretary of Energy).

Background

David Steven Morales was born in Edinburg, TX (in the Valley near the Mexican border) in 1968.  Morales attended Texas A&M University for a year, but received a B.B.A. from St. Edwards University in Austin.  After graduating, Morales spent a year at a Sales Associate at the Zale Corporation.[1]

In 1994, Morales received his J.D. from St. Mary’s University School of Law and then was hired by Texas Attorney General Dan Morales (a Democrat) as Assistant Attorney General in the General Litigation Division.[2]  Morales was appointed the Associate Deputy Attorney General for Litigation and Chief Ethics Officer by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (now the Republican Governor) in 2004.[3]  Abbott promoted Morales to Deputy Attorney General for Civil Litigation in 2007 and to Deputy First Assistant Attorney General in 2010.[4]

In 2011, Morales joined the Office of Gov. Rick Perry as General Counsel.  In 2014, Morales became Deputy General Counsel for the University of Texas System Board of Regents.  In 2016, Morales left that position to become a Partner in the Austin office of Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP.  He currently serves in that capacity.

History of the Seat

Morales has been nominated to fill the second longest pending judicial vacancy in the country.  This seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas opened on June 1, 2011, when Judge Janis Graham Jack moved to senior status.  The bipartisan Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee twice sent recommendations for nominees to Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, but the two were unable to agree on a nominee with the White House.[5]  As such, no nominee was ever put forward to fill the vacancy during the Obama Administration.

After the election of President Trump, Cruz and Cornyn reset up the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee to take applications for the federal bench.  Morales interviewed with the Committee on March 17, 2017, and with Cornyn and Cruz on April 7.  Morales then interviewed with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice on May 3, 2017, and was finally nominated on April 12, 2018.[6]

Important Cases

While Morales spent four years advising Perry as his General Counsel, and currently practices litigation in private practice, Morales’ most significant cases came during his 17-year long tenure at the Texas Attorney General’s Office, where he was responsible for both trial and appellate litigation involving the Texas government.

At the Texas Attorney General’s office, Morales litigated approximately 150 cases.[7]  Among his most notable cases, Morales successfully defended a challenge to Texas’ lethal injection method for capital punishment before the U.S. District Court, as well as assisting with the defense on appeal.[8]  Morales also negotiated an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in an investigation involving the treatment of persons with developmental disabilities in 12 Texas state schools.[9]

Morales also had an opportunity to work on briefing before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Notably, he helped assist Abbott and Cruz (then the Solicitor General) in defending a monument of the Ten Commandments that was displayed before the Texas Capitol.[10]  The Texas Supreme Court ultimately upheld the monument while striking down a similar display in Kentucky.[11]

Writings

In 2016, Morales published a letter to the editor for the Houston Chronicle in response to an editorial criticizing the decision to drop the lawsuit against Trump University.[12]  In the article, Morales described his role in leading the investigation against Trump University, stating that Abbott and political superiors had no role in directing or ending the inquiry.[13]  Rather, Morales stated that he decided to end the inquiry himself after Trump University agreed to permanently suspend Texas operations, noting:

“[The agreement] ensured that no further Texas citizens would be exposed to the company,”[14]

Morales also stated that his office had no written complaints from those who had used Trump University’s services, while also noting:

“I am proud that our Consumer Protection Division was able to get Trump University to immediately and permanently leave the State of Texas.”[15]

Morales’ letter sparked a letter in opposition from Houstonian John Fisch who noted that Trump University was given no sanctions for their deceptive conduct, stating:

“[Dropping the investigation] is akin to allowing a burglar to leave with the money and goods it took from a home, as long as he agrees not to break into the same house again.”[16]

Political Activity

Morales has a limited history of political activity.  He volunteered on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 and worked in then-Gov. Rick Perry’s Presidential Campaign in 2012, volunteering to assist with the Iowa caucuses.[17]

Overall Assessment

With over twenty years of litigation experience, Morales is clearly qualified for a seat on the federal bench.  While he has spent much of his career defending conservative statutes, the positions Morales took on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office cannot necessarily be considered predictive of his own approach on the bench.

Morales may draw questions, however, regarding his dropping of the investigation against Trump University.  Given his acknowledgment that he himself made the decision, Morales will likely be questioned on his motivation and reasoning.  Given the Republican majority and his otherwise noncontroversial record, however, Morales is still a favorite to be confirmed.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary 115th Cong., David S. Morales, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 3.

[2] See id. at 2.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] Krista M. Torralva, 26 Apply for Federal Judge Post in Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, March 1, 2017,  https://www.caller.com/story/news/local/2017/03/01/26-apply-federal-judge-post-corpus-christi/98580400/.  

[6] See Morales, supra n. 1 at 26.

[7] See id. at 14.

[8] See Raby v. Livingston, 600 F.3d 552 (5th Cir. 2010).

[9] See United States of America v. State of Texas, No. 009-CV-00790 (W.D. Tex.).

[10] Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005).

[11] McCreary Cnty. v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844 (2005).

[12] David Morales, Saturday Letters; Trump U. and Texas, Houston Chronicle, June 3, 2016, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/letters/article/Saturday-letters-Trump-U-and-Texas-7961669.php.  

[13] See id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] John Fisch, Curious Actions, Houston Chronicle, June 20, 2016, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/letters/article/Trump-U-and-Texas-8000753.php.  

[17] See Morales, supra n. 1 at 11.

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