Frequently reversed? A faux conservative? Judge Halil “Sul” Ozerden is getting hit hard from the right as a nominee to the Fifth Circuit. As he is not guaranteed support from Democrats, it is an open question whether Ozerden can be confirmed. However, he does bring a significant amount of judicial experience as a nominee.
Halil Suleyman Ozerden was born in Hattiesburg, MS on December 5, 1966, the son of Turkish immigrants. Ozerden graduated from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in 1989 and then spent six years as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy. Ozerden then attended Stanford Law, graduating in 1998.
After graduating, Ozerden clerked for Judge Eldon Fallon on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and then joined the Gulfport firm, Dukes, Dukes, Keating & Faneca, P.A. as an Associate. In 2003, Ozerden became a Partner at the firm.
In 2006, Ozerden, then only 39, was tapped by President George W. Bush for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi vacated by Judge David Bramlette. Ozerden was confirmed unanimously by the Senate on April 24, 2007. He serves in that capacity today.
History of the Seat
Ozerden has been nominated for a Mississippi seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. This seat opened on October 3, 2017 with Judge E. Grady Jolly’s move to senior status.
In April 2017, Ozerden conducted meetings with Mississippi’s U.S. Senators and was recommended to the White House. However, despite interviewing with the White House in July 2017, Ozerden was not selected as the nominee until April 2018. Even after that point, there was no action on Ozerden’s nomination for a year. During this time, some grumbled that Ozerden was not conservative enough to be nominated. Nevertheless, Ozerden was finally nominated after the intervention of White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who served as a groomsman in Ozerden’s wedding.
Ozerden was active in the Mississippi Republican Party before his elevation to the bench, volunteering for various Republican campaigns and serving as a Board Member of the Harrison County Republican Club. Compared to other appellate nominees, Ozerden is a latecomer to joining the Federalist Society, only doing so in 2019 when his nomination was under consideration.
Between 1999 and 2007, Ozerden worked in Gulfport, MS, handling general civil litigation. During this time, he defended the Harrison County Sheriff against a civil rights action alleging that the plaintiff was wrongfully arrested and incarcerated. He also represented the office after a Sheriff’s Investigator caused a car accident which triggered severe medical injuries for the plaintiff.
Ozerden has served as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi for the last twelve years. In this role, Ozerden has presided over hundreds or criminal and civil cases, including sixty nine that have gone to verdict or judgment. We have summarized some of Ozerden’s most significant cases below:
Ozerden has drawn criticism for conservative groups for his alleged “hostility” to religious rights. The opposition is largely based on his ruling in Catholic Diocese of Biloxi v. Sebelius, in which he dismissed a challenge to the Obamacare contraceptive mandate on ripeness grounds.
However, Ozerden’s record overall does not reflect a hostility to religious rights. For example, Ozerden reviewed a claim of religious discrimination against the Woodland Village Nursing Home Center. In the claim, the plaintiff, a Jehovah’s Witness, was fired after she refused to pray the rosary with a Catholic nursing home resident. The nursing home moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the plaintiff had never identified the basis of her religious belief or objection to her employer, but had merely stated that it was religious. Ozerden held that this was not a barrier and that the religious discrimination claim could move forward.
However, the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the employee had failed to inform the employers of the specific nature of her religious belief, and that, as such, her claim wasn’t viable.
Ozerden presided over a qui tam lawsuit brought by State Farm insurance adjusters claiming that State Farm had instructed them to falsely identify wind damage as flood damage, so that the federal government would be responsible for the losses. State Farm attempted to secure dismissal of the lawsuit due to the plaintiff’s failure to keep the complaint under seal for 60 days, a motion that Ozerden denied. The Fifth Circuit affirmed Ozerden’s ruling and the Supreme Court affirmed in a unanimous opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Ozerden has also been criticized for his high reversal rate, estimated by Severino at around 25%. Ozerden, for his part, has claimed that his reversal rate is around 4%. Generally, the reversal rate of a judge can be determined in many ways: one is by comparing the number of cases in which a judge has been reversed to the total number of decisions issued by the judge; another is by comparing the number of cases in which a judge has been reversed to the total number of decisions issued by the judge that have been appealed.
According to Ozerden’s questionnaire, his rulings have been wholly or partially reversed in seventeen cases. In comparison, he has issued approximately 1400 opinions, leaving a reversal rate of around 2%. However, because most interlocutory opinions are not appealable, a better comparison may be to focus on the number of cases that have actually been appealed (351). This would give him a reversal rate of approximately 4%. One could also use the number of cases that proceeded to verdict or judgment (69) , which would give you a rate of 25%.
All in all, consider the following: Trump has nominated eight federal district court judges other than Ozerden to be appellate judges. Of those, Thapar had 15 reversals in nine years; Erickson had 30 reversals in fourteen years; Engelhardt had 12 reversals in sixteen years; St. Eve had 43 reversals in sixteen years; Sullivan had 24 reversals in eleven years; Bianco had 13 reversals in twelve years; and Quattlebaum and Phipps had not been reversed in their short tenures. As such, Ozerden’s seventeen reversals are fairly comparable to those of Trump’s other nominees.
Unlike Trump’s other nominees to the Fifth Circuit, Ozerden has attracted a fair amount of opposition from conservative groups. This opposition is based largely on two arguments: first, that Ozerden’s high reversal rate shows a lack of “judicial competence”; second, that Ozerden has not been a conservative “leader” on the bench. As noted earlier, while reasonable minds can differ, we don’t see Ozerden’s reversal rate as substantially different than those of Trump’s other nominees.
Regarding the second complaint, the fundamental quality that litigants seek in judges is fairness. As such, one expects that a judge will comport their rulings with the law rather than with politics or any judicial ideology or philosophy. Ozerden’s record, overall, is conservative. However, if it does not reflect conservative “leadership”, then it is to the judge’s credit.
Overall, it will be particularly interesting to see how Democrats choose to vote on Ozerden. Will they see Ozerden as the best nominee they can expect from this Administration, or will they oppose Ozerden, forcing Republicans to find the votes to push him through?
 Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong., Ozerden: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 55-56.
 See id. at 56.
 See Carrie Severino, Conservatives Voice Concerns Over Potential Fifth Circuit Nominee, Nat’l Review, Aug. 21, 2018, https://www.nationalreview.com/bench-memos/conservatives-voice-concerns-over-potential-fifth-circuit-nominee/.
 Eliana Johnson and Marianne Levine, Mulvaney Pushed Judicial Nominee Over Objections of White House Lawyers, Politico, June 13, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/06/13/mulvaney-halil-suleyman-fifth-circuit-1362794.
 See id. at 41-42.
 See Harris v. Forrest Cnty., Miss., No. 2:03-cv-604-KS-MTP (S.D. Miss.).
 See Mullins v. Haden, No. A2401-2002-0672 (Miss. Cir. Ct.).
 See Ozerden, supra n.1 at 15.
 Catholic Diocese of Biloxi Inc. et al. v. Sebelius et al., Civil No. 1:12CV158-HSO-RHW (Dec. 20, 2012).
 Nobach v. Woodland Village Nursing Cntr, Inc., 2013 WL 2145723 (S.D. Miss. May 15, 2013).
 See id.
 See id.
 Nobach v. Woodland Village Nursing Cntr, Inc., 762 F.3d 442 (5th Cir. 2014).
 Nobach v. Woodland Village Nursing Cntr, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2803 (2015).
 Nobach v. Woodland Village Nursing Cntr, Inc., 799 F.3d 374 (5th Cir. 2015), cert. Denied, 136 S. Ct. 1166 (2016).
 See United States ex rel. Rigsby v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 794 F.3d 457 (5th Cir. 2015).
 See id.
 See State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. United States ex rel. Rigsby, 137 S. Ct. 436 (U.S. 2016).
 See Severino, supra n.3.