Thomas Cullen – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia

U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen built his reputation on the aggressive response to the 2017 Charlottesville attacks and his subsequent calling out of far-right terrorism.  As such, despite his conservative background, Cullen looks poised to be elevated to the federal bench with bipartisan support.

Background

A native Virginian, Thomas Tullidge Cullen was born in Richmond in 1977, the son of former Virginia Republican Attorney General Richard Cullen.[1]  Cullen attended Furman University and William and Mary School of Law, where he graduated Order of the Coif.  He then clerked for Judge Robert Payne on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and for Judge Roger Gregory on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  

After his clerkships, Cullen became a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina, and then moved to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia.[2] 

In 2013, Cullen moved to Woods Rogers PLC in Roanoke as a Partner.[3]  In 2018, upon the recommendation of U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, he was appointed by President Trump to be the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.[4]

History of the Seat

Cullen has been nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.  This seat opened on December 11, 2017, when Judge Glen Conrad moved to senior status.  In November 2018, Warner and Kaine recommended U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou and Scott County Circuit Court Judge John Kilgore to fill the vacancy.[5] 

Meanwhile, in May 2019, the Trump Administration broached the nomination with Cullen, instead of nominating either Ballou or Kilgore.[6]  However, Warner and Kaine refused to back Cullen unless he was vetted through the same process as Ballou and Kilgore.[7]  After the White House indicated that neither Ballou nor Kilgore would get the nomination, Warner and Kaine reopened the nomination process.[8]  This time, Cullen applied and was selected through the nomination process.  He was nominated in December 2019.

Legal Experience

Despite his relative youth, Cullen has fairly extensive experience, particularly in criminal law.  In particular, Cullen started his career as a federal prosecutor, then moved to private practice, and now serves as the U.S. Attorney.

Federal Prosecutor

Cullen had two stints as an Assistant U.S. Attorney: first in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina from 2006 to 2010; and then in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia from 2010 to 2013.  In these offices, Cullen worked on both appellate and trial level criminal cases.  Notably, Cullen prosecuted Jean-Claude Bridges, for the arson of a predominantly African American church in Henry County, Virginia.[9] 

Private Practice

Cullen was a Partner with WoodsRogers PLC in Roanoke between 2013 and 2018.  At the firm, Cullen worked primarily on defending individuals and corporations charged with white collar crimes.

Notably, Cullen represented Republican Delegate Terry Kilgore, who was under investigation for hiring Democratic State Sen. Phil Puckett at the State Tobacco Commission, a move that ended Democratic control of the State Senate and doomed Medicaid expansion.[10] 

U.S. Attorney

Since 2018, Cullen has served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.  During his tenure, Cullen notably led the prosecutions relating to the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, including for the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed by White supremacist James Fields.[11]  Fields was charged federally related to the death of Heyer and plead guilty to 29 hate crimes.[12]  Cullen also prosecuted the Rise Above Movement, a white supremacist movement, for violence caused in rioting in Charlottesville.[13] 

Writings

While Cullen has occasionally written on the law and politics, two of the articles he authored as a U.S. Attorney are particularly notable.

In 2018, Cullen authored an article commending the Albemarle-Charlottesville Jail Authority Board (ACJAB) for cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).[14]  In particular, Cullen was critical of groups who urged local prosecutors not to cooperate with ICE, arguing that ICE-notification implicates public safety as there are “numerous recent examples of unlawful aliens committing serious crimes after being released from sanctuary jails.”[15]

Additionally, after his prosecutions related demonstrations and attacks in Charlottesville by far-right protestors, Cullen authored an article critical of far-right extremism.[16]  In the article, Cullen wrote that “white supremacy and far-right extremism are among the greatest domestic-security threats facing the United States.[17]  He also urged Congress to pass stricter hate crime laws to help prosecutors address the rise of far-right extremism.[18]

Overall Assessment

From his work prosecuting an arsonist targeting an African-American church to his handling of the Charlottesville attacks and subsequent prosecutions, to his writings, Cullen has built his reputation combating far-right extremism.  As such, despite his youth and lack of judicial experience, Cullen is likely to have a smooth confirmation process.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong., Thomas Cullen: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See Jeff Sturgeon, Ballou, Kilgore Recommended for Federal Judgeship, Ronaoke Times, Nov. 21, 2018, https://www.roanoke.com/news/local/ballou-kilgore-recommended-for-federal-judgeship/article_ceb919e5-a5e4-5316-ad6b-d54b9bd1bca2.html.

[6] See Cullen, supra n. 1 at 48.

[7] See Jeff Schapiro, Judge Trouble for a Familiar Virginia Name, Sept. 15, 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/usa/richmond-times-dispatch-weekend/20190915/284077733332137.  

[8] Henri Gendreau, Virginia Senators Reopen Search For Roanoke-Based Federal Judge, Roanoke Times, Sept. 18, 2019, https://www.roanoke.com/news/local/virginia-senators-reopen-search-for-roanoke-based-federal-judge/article_3051fc75-101b-5ba2-b7c5-e26812ab5581.html.  

[9] See United States v. Jean-Claude Bridges, No. 4:13CR260002 (W.D. Va.).

[10] See Laura Vozzella, Puckett Exit Undid Secret Medicaid Plan, Wash. Post, Nov. 23, 2014.

[11] See United States v. James Alex Fields, No. 3:18CR0011 (W.D. Va.).

[12] Id.

[13] See Katie Benner and Hawes Spencer, ‘Serial Rioters’ Charges in 2017 Protests, N.Y. Times, Oct. 3, 2018.

[14] Thomas T. Cullen, Standing Up For the Rule of Law?, Richmond Times Dispatch, Sept. 10, 2018.

[15] See id.

[16] Thomas T. Cullen, Rising Far-Right Extremism in America, N.Y. Times, Feb. 23, 2019.

[17] See id.

[18] Id.

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