Christine O’Hearn – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey

Camden-based labor and employment attorney Christine O’Hearn is President Biden’s third nominee to the District of New Jersey, a short-staffed court with a number of vacancies that need filling.

Background

Born on June 26, 1969 in Camden, New Jersey, Christine P. O’Hearn received a B.A. from the University of Delaware in 1990 and a J.D. cum laude from Temple University School of Law in 1993.  O’Hearn has been at the firm of Brown & Connery since her graduation, and currently works as a Partner in their Labor and Employment and Litigation groups.

History of the Seat

The seat O’Hearn has been nominated for opened on November 2, 2018, with Judge Robert Kugler’s move to senior status.  Due to a dispute over nominees between New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker and the Trump Administration, no nominee to fill a district court vacancy in New Jersey was put forward by Trump.  O’Hearn was nominated to fill the vacancy on April 29, 2021.

Legal Experience

O’Hearn has spent her entire career at Brown & Connery, where she worked primarily in labor and employment litigation, while also taking some cases involving negligence and professional liability matters.  Among her notable matters, O’Hearn represented the parents of John Fiocco Jr., a student at the College of New Jersey who passed away and whose body was found in a Bucks County landfill, in a suit against the College and the State of New Jersey.  The suit ended in a settlement for $425,000.

On the employment side, O’Hearn generally represented employers in suits brought by employees.  For example, O’Hearn defended against a suit brought by former Gloucester County Sheriff Sharon Illas, who alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by one of her supervisors.  The suit concluded in a settlement, which included a statement by Illas retracting the allegation and clearing the County of any wrongdoing.  In a media statement, O’Hearn described the lawsuit as “the most frivolous case I have encountered.”  O’Hearn also noted that “[a]llegations of sexual assault which are knowingly false cause[] irreparable harm to the accused…A letter of apology does not erase that damage.” 

Political Activity

O’Hearn has a few political contributions to her name, all to Democrats, including Menendez and former Rep. Rob Andrews.

Overall Assessment

As a private practice attorney with plenty of experience in federal practice, O’Hearn is a conventional, if a bit safe, choice for the federal bench.  However, there is little in her experience or background that is likely to draw controversy, and she will likely receive bipartisan support on the way to confirmation.

Regina Rodriguez – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado

In 2016, Regina Rodriguez was nominated for the federal bench by President Obama with the bipartisan support of Colorado’s U.S. Senators.  However, Rodriguez never received a hearing before the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.  When recommended for another federal judgeship in 2021, Rodriguez was attacked, this time from the left, for a perceived lack of experience in civil rights.  These attacks belie Rodriguez’s relatively mainstream credentials.  Her nomination by the Biden Administration is likely a prelude to a comfortable confirmation.

Background

A native Coloradoan, Regina Marie Rodriguez was born in 1963 in Gunnison.  Rodriguez attended the University of Iowa, graduating with honors in 1984.[1]  Rodriguez then received a J.D. from the University of Colorado School of Law in 1988.

After graduating, Rodriguez joined the Denver office of Cooper & Kelly P.C. as an associate.[2]  After six years, Rodriguez left to become a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, rising to become Chief of the Civil Division in 1999.[3]  

In 2002, Rodriguez joined the Denver Office of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, where she worked until 2016, when she moved to Hogan Lovells LLP.[4]  In 2019, Rodriguez shifted to the Denver office of WilmerHale, where she currently serves.

In 2016, Rodriguez was nominated by President Obama to the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, to replace Judge Robert Blackburn.[5]  Rodriguez had the support of Democratic Senator Michael Bennet and Republican Senator Cory Gardner.[6]  However, despite their support, the Senate Judiciary Committee took no action on Rodriguez’s nomination and it expired at the end of the 114th Congress.  Rodriguez was not renominated by the Trump Administration, who instead chose Colorado Solicitor General Daniel Domenico, who was confirmed in 2016.

History of the Seat

Rodriguez has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.  This seat was opened by Judge Marcia Kreiger’s move to senior status on March 3, 2019.  Although this vacancy opened with nearly two years left in President Trump’s term, he did not put forward a nominee to fill the seat, possibly because he was unable to reach an agreement with Sen. Michael Bennet.  

Legal Experience

Rodriguez began her legal career at the firm of Cooper & Kelly P.C.  At the firm, Rodriguez handled primarily professional liability defense and general insurance defense work.[7]  The rest of her career can be divided into the seven years she spent as a federal prosecutor, and the two decades she spent in private practice.   

Federal Prosecutor

From 1995 to 2002, Rodriguez served in the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Colorado.  In this role, Rodriguez defended the federal government against lawsuits.  For example, Rodriguez defended the federal government against a lawsuit brought by the parents of a boy injured on a sledding trip with his Boy Scout troop.[8]

Private Practice

Since 2002, Rodriguez has worked in private practice, working primarily in complex civil litigation.  Notably, Rodriguez was part of the legal team representing Toyota in defending against a lawsuit alleging defects in their vehicles that caused economic loss to the plaintiffs.[9]

Notably, Rodriguez joined with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) in suing to improve Latino representation in the 2011 Congressional maps.[10]  She argued in the suit that the status quo failed to ensure proper representation for the community.[11]  The suit ended with the court adopting the redistricting proposal sought by Rodriguez’s clients.

Writings 

Throughout her career, Rodriguez has written and spoken on the issue of diversity in the legal field.  For example, in 2015, Rodriguez co-authored an article discussing legal diversity for Colorado Law Week.[12]  She has also discussed the tendency of law firm partners to hire others who come from similar backgrounds, a phenomenon that can lead to barriers to legal diversity.[13]

Political Activity

While Rodriguez has not played an official role with a political party,[14] she has made a number of political donations throughout her career, all to Democrats.[15]  Recipients of her donations include Sen. John Hickenlooper and President Joe Biden.[16]

Overall Assessment

Unlike most of Biden’s judicial nominees, Regina Rodriguez’s nomination has drawn primary opposition among some liberal groups.[17]  The criticism generally arises from a perception that Rodriguez is “corporate” and a “former prosecutor.”  

However, it’s unlikely that such criticism will carry the day in the Senate.  It is hard to question Rodriguez’s qualifications for a federal judgeship, with extensive litigation experience and respect from both sides of the aisle.  To the extent that criticism of Rodriguez reflects criticism of a paucity of judges from public interest backgrounds, senators will likely conclude that such interests can be addressed without jettisoning the nomination of a qualified candidate.


[1]See Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 113rd Cong., Ketanji Brown Jackson: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2]Jackson’s clerk class included 7th Circuit Judge Michael Scudder, Texas Supreme Court Justice Brett Busby, and appellate superstar Kannon Shanmugam. 

[3] See Jackson, supra n. 1 at 2.

[4] Id.

[5] Press Release, White House, President Obama Nominates Eight to Serve on the United States District Court (April 28, 2016) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov). 

[6] Press Release, Office of Senator Michael Bennet, Bennet, Gardner Urge Judiciary Committee to Consider Regina Rodriguez Nomination (July 12, 2016) (on file at https://www.bennet.senate.gov/?p=release&id=3735). 

[7] See Rodriguez, supra n. 1 at 21.

[8] Hancey v. United States, 967 F. Supp. 443 (D. Colo. 1997).

[9]See In re Toyota Motor Corp., 790 F. Supp. 2d 1152 (C.D. Cal. 2011).

[10] See Ivan Moreno,Colo. Court Battle Over Congressional Maps Begins, A.P., Oct. 9, 2011.

[11] See Ivan Moreno, Colorado Congressional Redistricting Suit Wraps Up, A.P., Oct. 31, 2011.

[12] Regina Rodriguez, Scott Martinez, and Shelby Myers, Denver: An Opportunity for True Inclusiveness in the Legal Profession, Law Week Colorado, Mar. 23, 2015.

[13] See Renwei Chung, 6 Reasons for Gender Differences At the Top of the Legal Profession, Above the Law, Sept. 25, 2015.

[14] See Rodriguez, supra n. 1 at 19.

[16] Id.

[17] See, e.g., Alexander Sammon, Why Is Michael Bennet Defying Joe Biden’s Call For Non-Corporate Judges, American Prospect, Feb. 15, 2021.

Candace Jackson-Akiwumi – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Seventh Circuit Nominee Candace Jackson-Akiwumi is an unusual appellate candidate in many ways. If confirmed, she would be the youngest judge appointed to the Seventh Circuit since Judge Frank Easterbrook was appointed in 1985. She would also be the first African American judge on the court since Judge Ann Claire Williams was appointed in 1999. Additionally, her background as a federal public defender fits within President Biden’s call for appointing more public defenders and civil rights attorneys to the federal bench.

Background

Jackson-Akiwumi was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1979. Both of Jackson-Akiwumi’s parents were judges, with her father serving as a U.S. District Judge on the Eastern District of Virginia, and her mother serving as a state trial judge in Norfolk.  Jackson-Akiwumi graduated with honors from Princeton University in 2000 and from Yale Law School in 2005.[1]  After graduating, Jackson-Akiwumi clerked for Judge David Coar on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and for Judge Roger Gregory on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.[2]

After her clerkships, Jackson-Akiwumi joined the Chicago office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom as a litigation associate.  In 2010, Jackson-Akiwumi joined the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Chicago.  In 2020, Jackson-Akiwumi moved to become a Partner with the Washington D.C. office of Zuckerman Spaeder, where she currently works.

History of the Seat

Jackson-Akiwumi has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  The seat opened on November 30, 2020 when Judge Joel Flaum moved to senior status.  As the seat opened late in the Trump Administration, no nominee was put forward for the vacancy.  On December 30, 2020, incoming Senate Judiciary Chair Richard Durbin reached out to Jackson-Akiwumi to gauge her interest in a judicial appointment.[3]  After a meeting with President Biden and White House Counsel Dana Remus, Jackson-Akiwumi’s appointment was announced on March 30, 2021.

Legal Career

Setting aside her clerkships, Jackson-Akiwumi’s career can be split into her time at Skadden Arps, her time as a federal public defender, and in her current role at Zuckerman Spaeder.  

Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom

In 2007, Jackson-Akiwumi joined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom as a litigation associate.  In this role, Jackson-Akiwumi primarily worked in complex civil litigation.  While at the firm, Jackson-Akiwumi tried one case before a jury as sole counsel and argued one appeal before the Seventh Circuit.[4]  The appeal she argued involved a challenge to the probable cause supporting the traffic detention that led to her client’s conviction (the challenge was rejected by the Seventh Circuit).[5]

Federal Public Defender

In 2010, Jackson-Akiwumi became a staff attorney with the federal defender program in the Northern District of Illinois, where she represented indigent defendants in the Chicago-based federal courts.  In her ten years with the office, Jackson-Akiwumi tried seven cases to a jury and argued five appeals to the Seventh Circuit.[6]

Among her notable cases with the Office, Jackson-Akiwumi worked with the University of Chicago’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic to challenge alleged Racially Selective prosecution practices from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago.[7] Judge Ruben Castillo, in his ruling in one of the cases where the challenge was raised, chastised the use of “stash-house stings” to pursue federal gun charges, but declined to dismiss the charges against the defendant, finding that he had failed to meet the “high burden” of dismissal.[8]

Zuckerman Spaeder

Since 2020, Jackson-Akiwumi has been a Partner with the Washington D.C. office of Zuckerman Spaeder, where she handles White Collar defense and investigations work.

Overall Assessment

As an appellate nominee in her early 40s, Jackson-Akiwumi has the potential to be a federal judge for the next four decades.  This longevity gives her a unique ability to shape the jurisprudence of the Seventh Circuit.  It also makes her a potential future Supreme Court candidate.  These factors are likely to draw opposition, even though there is little controversy in her background to coalesce opposition around.

As a bottom line, as long as Democrats stick together, Jackson-Akiwumi should be confirmed for the Seventh Circuit in due course, and given her support from Senate Judiciary Chair Durbin, she is likely to be.

[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 117th Cong. Candace Jackson-Akiwumi: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] See id. at 2.

[3] See id. at 31.

[4] See id. at 18.

[5] See United States v. Garcia-Garcia, 633 F.3d 608 (7th Cir. 2011).

[6] See Jackson-Akiwumi, supra n.1 at 19.

[7] See United States v. Brown, No. 12 CR 632-1, 2018 WL 1278577 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 12, 2018) (Castillo, J.).

[8] See United States v. Brown, 299 F. Supp. 3d 976 (N.D. Ill. 2018) (Castillo, J.).