Stephen Vaden – Nominee to the U.S. Court of International Trade

The U.S. Court of International Trade is a specialized court that hears cases involving international trade and customs laws, but whose judges, nonetheless, sit for lifetime appointments.  While nominees to the court generally attract less opposition due to the court’s specialized nature, there are always exceptions.  Stephen Vaden, who has already had one tough confirmation through the Senate, will likely face questions for his youth, lack of experience, and rocky tenure in his current position.

Background

A native Tennessean, Stephen Alexander Vaden was born in Memphis in 1982.  Vaden grew up in Union City, Tennessee, where his father ran a family farm.[1]  Vaden attended Vanderbilt University and then attended Yale Law School, graduating in 2008.[2]  After graduating, Vaden clerked for Judge Julia Smith Gibbons on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and then for Judge Samuel Mays on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.[3]

After his clerkships, Vaden joined the Washington D.C. office of Patton Boggs as an Associate.[4]  In 2014, Vaden moved to Jones Day in Washington D.C. as an Associate.[5]

In 2017, Vaden was nominated to be General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and serving as acting General Counsel during his nomination.[6]  However, his nomination was criticized by Democrats for his work defending voter restrictions in Ohio and North Carolina.[7]  After passing out of Committee, Vaden’s nomination sat on the floor for months before being confirmed on a 53-46 vote.[8]  He currently serves in that capacity.

History of the Seat

Vaden has been nominated for a seat vacated by Judge Delissa Ridgeway, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, on January 31, 2019.  

In April 2019, Vaden was contacted by the White House to discuss a judicial appointment.[9]  Vaden interviewed with the Department of Justice and was nominated on October 2, 2019.  

Political Activity

Vaden is a Republican with a long history of contributions to the Tennessee Republican Party.[10]  In addition, Vaden has also given to other Republicans, including his sponsor Rep. David Kustoff.[11] 

Additionally, while in law school, Vaden was President of the Yale Law Republicans, where he opposed the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policies.[12]

Legal Experience

Before he started at the Department of Agriculture, Vaden worked at the firms of Patton Boggs and Jones Day, where he handled litigation.  During his tenure there, Vaden argued the case of Lilliputian Sys. Inc. v. Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Admin. Before the D.C. Circuit, in which he persuaded the Court to overturn federal regulations on carrying fuel cell cartridges on passenger flights.[13]  He also represented amicus parties in defending voter restrictions passed by North Carolina and Ohio.[14] 

Since 2017, Vaden has served as General Counsel to the Department of Agriculture.  Vaden’s nomination to the position came under criticism from sources who argued that Vaden was reassigning career appointees and Democrats to jobs in other parts of the country.[15]  He was also criticized for being “intransigent” and hurting morale among Department attorneys.[16] 

Vaden was also implicated in the widely criticized decision by USDA to relocate the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food Agriculture to Kansas City.[17]  The decision was criticized for being politically motivated and for forcing workers to quit.[18]  The move was also lambasted by the Department’s Inspector General, who argued that it violated laws requiring congressional approval before spending money to relocate offices.[19]  In response, Vaden justified the decision in a memo, stating:

“USDA is not required to abide by unconstitutional laws.”[20]

Overall Assessment

While nominations to the Court of International Trade are usually non-controversial, Vaden is likely to draw opposition.  Specifically, Vaden is likely to draw questions regarding his tenure at the Department of Agriculture, his contention that the Department can ignore laws it deems to be unconstitutional, as well as his participation in lawsuits defending voter restrictions.  He is also likely to face questions about his youth and his lack of experience litigating issues of International Trade or appearing in court.  Vaden has not practiced before the Court of International Trade at all, and, by his own account, has only argued in court once in his entire career.  As such, at a time when Trump nominees are drawing criticism for their lack of experience, Vaden will likely face the same scrutiny.


[1] Press Release, Office of Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessean Stephen Vaden Has The “Hands-On Experience’ To Be Agriculture Department General Counsel (Nov. 9, 2017).

[2] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong., Stephen Vaden: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[3] See id. at 2.

[4] Id. at 2.

[5] Id.

[6] See Alexander, supra n. 1.

[7] Lead Lawyer for Agriculture Comes Under Democratic Fire, Congressional Quarterly News, Nov. 9, 2017.

[8] Tennessee Attorney Confirmed as USDA’s General Counsel, A.P. State & Local, Nov. 28, 2018.

[9] See id. at 25.

[10] See Vaden, supra n. 1 at 10.

[12] Thomas Kaplan, Yale Law, Newly Defeated, Allows Military Recruiters, N.Y. Times, Oct. 1, 2007.

[13] 741 F.3d 1309 (D.C. Cir. 2014).

[14] See Ohio Democratic Party v. Husted, 834 F.3d 620 (6th Cir. 2016); N. Carolina State Conference of NAACP v. McCrory, 831 F.3d 204 (4th Cir. 2016).

[15] Morning Agriculture, Vaden Advances, So Does Related Controversy, Politico, Dec. 12, 2017, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/morning-agriculture/2017/12/12/vaden-advances-so-does-related-controversy-047706.  

[16] Vaden Causes Concern Within USDA, The Frontrunner, Dec. 5, 2017.

[17] Gregory Wallace, USDA May Have Violated Law in Controversial Office Relocation Decision, Inspector General Says, CNN, Aug. 6, 2019.

[18] See id.

[19] See id.

[20] Id. (quoting Stephen Vaden).

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