John Sinatra – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York

No woman has ever served as a federal judge in Buffalo.  In fact, the entire Western District of New York got its first and only female judge in 2013, when Judge Elizabeth Wolford was appointed to a Rochester-based seat.  The Buffalo-based vacancy on the court, which is the oldest judicial vacancy in New York, saw a tussle over two female candidates during the Obama Administration.  Now, the Trump Administration has put forward a male attorney for the position: John Sinatra.

Background

A Buffalo native, John Sinatra was born there in 1972.  He received a Bachelor of Arts magna cum laude from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1993 and went on to earn his J.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School in 1996.[1]  Sinatra then clerked on the New York Court of Appeals (despite its name, New York’s top court) for two years, and then joined the Cleveland office of Jones Day.[2]

In 2007, Sinatra joined the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington D.C. as a Senior Counsel.  He left a year later to become a Partner at Hodgson Russ, LLP. in Buffalo.  He continues to work there to this day.

Sinatra has periodically applied, unsuccessfully, for state and federal judgeships.  In 2012 and 2013, Sinatra applied to be on the New York Court of Appeals but was not selected.[3]  Sinatra also applied to be a U.S. Magistrate Judge on the Western District in 2015 but Michael Roemer was selected instead.[4]

History of the Seat

Sinatra has been nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York.  This seat opened on March 8, 2015, when Judge William Skretny moved to senior status.  Skretny had actually announced his move to senior status in early 2014, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recommended former U.S. Attorney Denise O’Donnell for the seat.[5]  However, the Obama Administration never nominated O’Donnell.  Many observers speculated that the White House was concerned with O’Donnell’s age (67) and political history.[6]  Facing no action from the Administration, O’Donnell withdrew her candidacy in October 2015.[7]

Determined to seat a female candidate in the Buffalo-based judgeship, Schumer recommended Kathleen Sweet, a civil litigator.  This time, the Obama Administration concurred, nominating Sweet on March 15, 2016.[8]  Sweet received a hearing from the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2016, and was voted out unanimously on September 5, 2016.  However, Sweet was blocked from a floor vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, ultimately being returned unconfirmed at the end of the 114th Congress.

After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Schumer pushed the Administration to renominate Sweet.[9]  However, the Administration interviewed Sinatra, who was proposed by Congressman Chris Collins (R-NY), in early 2017.[10]  After the White House firmly declined to renominate Sweet, Schumer accepted Sinatra’s nomination as part of a package of eight New York judicial nominees.[11]  Sinatra was formally nominated on May 15, 2018.

Legal Experience

Sinatra began his legal career as an associate at Jones Day, a firm that has produced many Trump judicial nominees.  Working in their Cleveland office, Sinatra primarily practiced civil litigation.  For example, Sinatra represented the manufacturer of welding electrodes used in building construction.[12]  The manufacturer was sued after the 1994 Northridge earthquake allegedly damaged a building structure, and Sinatra helped manage the manufacturer’s defense.

After a year at the Department of Commerce, Sinatra became a Partner at Hodgson Russ LLP in Buffalo.  At Hodgson, Sinatra has primarily focused on bringing qui tam cases under the False Claims Act, a federal statute allowing private citizens to sue to recover money fraudulently obtained from the government.  Sinatra notably sued DHL Express, Inc., a shipping company, for improperly charging fuel surcharges to the federal government.[13]  The qui tam suit, defended by attorney Lawrence Vilardo (who was later appointed to the Western District by President Obama), was ultimately unsuccessful.[14]  Sinatra also brought a False Claims Act suit against Columbia University for the alleged defrauding related to federal grants for studying HIV.[15]

Political Activity

Sinatra, a Republican, has a fairly limited political record.  Sinatra has four donations of record, two to then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), one to Mitt Romney in 2012, and one to Collins.[16]  Sinatra has also contributed to national Republicans, giving to the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and John Kasich, as well as to the Republican National Committee.[17]  Additionally, Sinatra volunteered for the campaign of Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds in 2006.[18]

Overall Assessment

Sinatra has one of the most powerful assets he will need for a smooth confirmation, the support of Schumer and fellow New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.  With Schumer serving as leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus and Gillibrand a likely presidential contender in 2020, Democrats are unlikely to undercut either one by opposing a nominee they endorse.  As such, as long as Sinatra continues to maintain support by both senators, he is likely to see a comfortable confirmation.


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

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] Id. at 13.

[4] Id.

[5] Phil Fairbanks and Jerry Zremski, Denise O’Donnell Nominated for Federal Bench, Buffalo News, June 25, 2014, https://buffalonews.com/2014/06/25/denise-odonnell-nominated-for-federal-bench/.   

[6] Jerry Zremski, How Schumer Tried and Failed to Get a Woman on Buffalo’s Bench, Buffalo News, May 14, 2018, https://buffalonews.com/2018/05/14/the-briefing-how-schumer-tried-and-failed-to-get-a-woman-judge-on-buffalos-bench/.  

[7] Jerry Zremski, Vilardo Confirmed as Federal Judge as O’Donnell Bows Out, Buffalo News, Oct. 26, 2015, https://buffalonews.com/2015/10/26/vilardo-confirmed-as-federal-judge-as-odonnell-bows-out/.  

[8] See Zremski, supra n. 4.

[9] Jerry Zremski, Schumer: White House Insisted on Sinatra, Not Sweet, As Federal Judge, Buffalo News, May 10, 2018, https://buffalonews.com/2018/05/10/schumer-white-house-insisted-that-sinatra-not-sweet-be-federal-judge/.  

[10] See Sinatra, supra n. 1 at 27.

[11] See Zremski, supra n 7.

[12] See Westside Assocs, Ltd. v. Lincoln Electric Co., No. SC 045651 (Los Angeles Cnty. Super. Ct. 2000) (Judge Edward Kakita).

[13] See U.S. ex rel. Grupp v. DHL Express (USA), Inc., 47 F. Supp. 3d 171 (W.D.N.Y. 2014) (Judge John Curtin), aff’d, 604 F. App’x 40 (2d Cir. 2015).

[14] See id.

[15] See U.S. ex rel. Love v. Trustees of Columbia Univ. in the City of New York, No. 11-cv-4353 (S.D.N.Y.) (Judge Lorna Schofield).

[17] See id.

[18] See Sinatra, supra n. 1 at 13.

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