Nina Morrison – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York

Nina Morrison has spent the last twenty years representing inmates in seeking to re-evaluate convictions and establish evidence of innocence. She now has an opportunity to step into a different role, as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Background

Born in 1970, the daughter of Alan Morrison, a Dean at the George Washington University Law School who argued twenty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Morrison attended Yale University, graduating in 1992. Morrison then attended New York University Law School, graduating in 1998. She then clerked for Judge Pierre Leval on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

After her clerkships, Morrison became an associate at Emery Cuti Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP where she focused on civil rights litigation. After three years there, Morrison joined the Innocence Project, where she works as executive director and senior litigation counsel.

History of the Seat

Morrison has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. This seat opened when Judge Dora Irizarry moved to senior status on January 26, 2020. On August 12, 2020, the White House nominated HUD attorney David Woll to fill this vacancy, but Woll never received a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On September 1, 2021, Morrison was recommended for a nomination by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to the White House. She was nominated on December 15, 2021.

Legal Experience

While Morrison has held other positions, her primary experience over the past twenty years has been at the Innocence Project, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of individuals wrongly convicted of crimes. Morrison’s work at the Project led to the re-evaluation of hundreds of cases and the release of many. Not all the individuals released were “proven innocent”, with, in some cases, the evidence merely casting doubt on the original conviction rather than definitively establishing innocence. See, e.g., Sarah Brumfield, Maryland Man Convicted of Two Kilings in 1985 is Freed After DNA Tests Undermine Evidence, A.P., June 19, 2003. In other cases, prosecutors moved to retry defendants who had managed to overturn their original convictions. See, e.g., Bruce Lambert, Prosecutor Will Retry Man Freed by DNA in L.I. Rape-Murder, N.Y. Times, Sept. 12, 2003. We have summarized some of the important cases Morrison worked on by the state of conviction below.

Arkansas

Morrison represented Ledell Lee, an Arkansas death row inmate seeking a stay to permit DNA testing to prove his innocence. Kelly P. Kissel and Jill Bleed, Arkansas Suffers 2 Setbacks to Multiple Execution Plan, A.P., Apr. 20, 2017. Lee was ultimately executed after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal. Kelly P. Kissel and Sean Murphy, Arkansas Overcomes Legal Hurdles, Carries Out Execution, A.P., Apr. 21, 2017. Four years after the execution, new DNA evidence emerged linking a different man to the murder that Lee was executed for. See Heather Murphy, 4 Years After an Execution, a Different Man’s DNA is Found on the Murder Weapon, N.Y. Times, May 7, 2021.

Florida

Morrison got involved in reviewing and advocating for DNA testing in 80 Florida cases after the Legislature, in 2003, opened a two-year window for such testing. Mitch Stacy, Florida Attorneys Scramble to Beat Deadline for Inmate DNA Testing, A.P., Sept. 25, 2003. Among the men freed was Wilton Dedge, who spent 22 years in prison after being mistakenly identified by a rape victim. See Florida Frees Exonerated Man After 22 Years in Prison, But Leaves Him With Nothing, A.P., Sept. 12, 2004. Another was Orlando Bosquette, a prison escapee who was exonerated by the coordinated efforts of Morrison and Florida prosecutor Mark Kohl. See Jim Dwyer, Innocent Man Describes Decade of Life on the Run, N.Y. Times, May 23, 2006.

New York

Morrison represented Jeffrey Deskovic, convicted of the rape and murder of his high school classmate in 1990. See Fernanda Santos, DNA Testing Frees Man Imprisoned for Half His Life, N.Y. Times, Sept. 21, 2006. Deskovic’s request for DNA testing was initially fought by District Attorney Jeanine Pirro (later a GOP candidate for Attorney General) but was later approved by her successor Janet DiFiore (currently a judge on New York’s highest court), leading to Deskovic’s release. See id. Morrison also successfully obtained the release of Scott Fappiano, who was exonerated after an inventory of DNA samples in his rape conviction were retested. See Nicholas Confessore, After 21 Years, DNA Testing Sets Man Free in Rape Case, N.Y. Times, Oct. 7, 2006.

Notably, Morrison represented Roy Brown, who sought to overturn his conviction for the murder of social worker Sabina Kulakowski, arguing that DNA evidence suggested the real killer was her boyfriend’s brother. See Fernanda Santos, Inmate Finds Vindication in His Quest for a Killer, N.Y. Times, Dec. 21, 2006. However, Judge Peter Corning declined to order a release without additional evidence and testing. Fernanda Santos, Prosecutors Pursue DNA Case as Judge Lets Verdict Stand in ‘91 Killing, N.Y. Times, Dec. 22, 2006. However, after prosecutors subsequently exhumed the body of the accused killer and found a DNA match, Brown was exonerated and released. See Fernanda Santos, With DNA From Exhumed Body, Man Finally Wins Freedom, N.Y. Times, Jan. 24, 2007.

Texas

Morrison was an advocate for Brandon Moon, who was convicted of rape in 1988 largely based on the expert testimony of blood testing expert Glen David Adams. See Barbara Novovitch, Free After 17 Years for a Rape He Did Not Commit, N.Y. Times, Dec. 22, 2004. The case led to Moon’s exoneration and the exposure of flaws in Adams’ methodology, with the El Paso District Attorney publicly apologizing to Moon for the time he had spent in prison. See id. Morrison also represented James Waller, who was exonerated of a raping a minor child in Dallas after DNA evidence ruled him out as a suspect. See Ralph Blumenthal, A 12th Dallas Convict is Exonerated by DNA, N.Y. Times, Jan. 18, 2007.

Notably, Morrison represented Michael Morton, who was convicted of killing his wife in 1987 despite evidence showing that she had been killed by an intruder. See Will Weissert, DNA Helps Free Texas Man Convicted in Wife’s Death, A.P., Oct. 3, 2011. The case also drew attention because exculpatory evidence, including statements by Morton’s toddler son, who was home at the time of the murder, were not properly disclosed to defense counsel. See Brandi Grissom, Inmate’s Release Brings Call for New Evidence Law, N.Y. Times, Oct. 9, 2011. The withholding of evidence eventually led to the conviction of prosecutor Ken Anderson for contempt of court. See Chuck Lindell, Ken Anderson to Serve 10 Days in Jail, Austin American Statesman, Nov. 8, 2013, http://www.statesman.com/news/news/ken-anderson-to-serve-10-days-in-jail/nbmsH/.

Statements and Writings

In her role as the Executive Director of the Innocence Project, Morrison has spoken out frequently about her clients and the state of current criminal law. For example, Morrison has been critical of laws that restrict inmates to having a single year to present DNA evidence of innocence, noting that preparing cases often takes much longer. See Sharon Cohen, Deborah Hastings, For 110 Inmates Freed By DNA Tests, True Freedom Remains Elusive, A.P., May 28, 2002. Morrison has also been critical of eyewitness accounts of crimes, noting that they are frequently unreliable and result in innocent people getting locked up. See Ron Kampeas, Setbacks in Sniper Search Illustrate the Frequent Unrealiability of Eyewitnesses, A.P., Oct. 17, 2002. She has pushed for more resources for the re-integration of exonerees. See Florida Frees Exonerated Man After 22 Years in Prison, But Leaves Him With Nothing, A.P., Sept. 12, 2004. Morrison has also spoken out for greater accountability against prosecutors who fail to disclose exculpatory evidence. Nina Morrison, What Happens When Prosecutors Break the Law, N.Y. Times, June 18, 2018. See also Emily Bazelon, She was Convicted of Killing Her Mother. Prosecutors Withheld the Evidence That Would Have Freed Her, N.Y. Times, Aug.1, 2017; Tom Hays, Report Blames Prosecutor Missteps in Botched NYC Convictions, N.Y. Times, July 9, 2020.

In an interview describing the Deskovic case, Morrison noted that she joined the Innocence Project because she wanted to fight for “people who didn’t have a voice or an advocate” and because she wanted to have a greater impact than merely securing settlements in favor of civil rights plaintiffs. See Adam Nichols, DNA Key to Unlock a Cell: Attorney’s “Long Shot” Triumph to Clear Man, Daily News, Sept. 24, 2006.

In other writings, Morrison has praised state courts that have drawn broad constitutional protections for criminal defendants, noting that they are remedying the “constitutional amnesia” of federal courts by more closely aligning their jurisprudence with the underlying principles of the Bill of Rights. See Nina Morrison, Curing “Constitutional Amnesia”: Criminal Procedure Under State Constitutions, 73 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 880 (June 1998).

Political Activity

Morrison has been a frequent donor to Democratic candidates for office, giving to the presidential campaigns of John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. Morrison has also donated to gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams.

Overall Assessment

Having spent two decades working intimately in the trenches of criminal law and procedure, Morrison will join the bench with no learning curve on those issues. While she has less experience with civil litigation, Morrison will have an opportunity to convince senators that her background reflects the intellect and the ability to get up to speed on those issues.

Given her success in overturning convictions and her outspoken-ness on issues of criminal law, many senators are likely to argue that Morrison would be an “activist” on the bench. However, Morrison and her defenders can always argue that ensuring that the innocent are not punished for someone else’s crime is an issue that everyone can get behind.

30 Comments

  1. The SJC just had its executive vote. Nominees Ho, Sweeney & Vera were all tie votes. The Republicans spoke in depth about their opposition to Dale Ho. I truly wish Ho would have been nominated to the DC circuit instead of a district court. Especially after we see who the nominee ended up being in judge Childs.

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  2. I give this nomination a B solely due to Morrison’s age, otherwise this is an excellent nomination. It’s truly unfortunate that Schumer didn’t recommend Morrison in 2013 during the Obama admin.

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    • I normally would lower my grade for nominee because of age but her background is so solid for so long, I can only lower it from A+ to an A. 5 or 10 years younger & I would be protesting, banging on Schumer’s office door to demand she be switched to a circuit court seat.

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    • I also want to say that Holly Thomas should be seen as a working class nominee. She was the first in her family to go to college, and her degrees from Stanford and Yale should not make her an “elitist” selection the way Clyburn and some others want to frame this.

      Personally I would put her on SCOTUS, likely to replace Breyer, but hopefully the other Thomas leaves the bench ASAP as well.

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      • I think today definitely puts Holly Thomas on the shortlist for SCOTUS. So far she, Dale Ho, Hector Gonzalez & Jia Cobb have been nominated out of the names from my list I sent to The White House early last year (I didn’t bother to include Kantaji Jackson since she was obvious) so I’m a big supporter of Holly.

        I still think Biden will likely nominate Kantaji & hopefully not Childs (I think everyone knows where I stand on her) but Holly being a year younger would certainly be welcome news. It’s almost the end of January & I really hope Justice Breyer does some soul searching & decides by next month to announce he will finally recite this Summer.

        On a total different subject Schumer filed cloture on all DC local nominees plus the 3 Ohio nominees & Leonard Stark.

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      • Holly Thomas was born in 1979 vs KBJ born in 1970. She’s 8-9 years younger and probably more progressive (although KBJ is fairly progressive as well). Leondra Krueger is considerably less progressive and Biden should pass on her.

        Jeffrey Toobin claims that a Supreme Court vacancy is “imminent”. And true to form, Bakari Sellers replied and suggested Childs.

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  3. Schumer filed cloture on a bunch of nominees today, 4 of which were judicial, 3 District and one Circuit – L Stark….They’ll be off next week but at least one vote Mon night 1/31

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    • While I’m not happy they are on another vacation, at least it was a good week overall for judicial nominations. We got the 13th batch which was one of the better batches, we had an executive business vote today, Schumer filed cloture on the pending nominees & Holy Thomas was confirmed today. When the senate returns the SJC really need to get moving on nomination hearings. Not having one this week really was disappointing. They should have one three straight weeks upon return.

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    • After Christine O’Hearn, I’m having a hard time putting any Biden nominee worse then Jennifer Rearden. J Childs nomination to the DC circuit is the worst in terms of the court the nominee was nominated to, but Childs is at least highly qualified. I’m just upset at the court she was nominated to with her being in her mid 50’s.

      Ms. Rearden on the other hand has no progressive background I can find & even has donated to multiple Republicans. She is also in her 50’s. She most likely is a Democrat but there are just countless younger & more progressive nominees then her from NY.

      And no disagreement from me on Dale Ho being nominated to a circuit court. I actually thought he should have been nominated to the DC circuit. After seeing who was nominated combined with the way the Republicans’ heads almost exploded yesterday in the executive business meeting vote, I am only more embolden in that thought.

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      • I actually think that Rearden is worse than Christine O’Hearn. This is not someone that should ever be nominated, even with a GOP Senate, and it would have been preferable to leave the seat unfilled.

        I also disagree regarding Judge Childs being highly qualified to the DC Circuit. 4th Circuit probably. DC Circuit with its focus on administrative law, well there were plenty who were far more qualified. That nomination was pure political patronage and frankly is impeachable. If she is nominated for the Supreme Court, I will join the GOP calling for Biden’s impeachment and likely won’t vote for Biden in 2024 even against Trump.

        As bad as Rearden is, it is still only a district court, not the DC Circuit.

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      • Rearden is bad, real bad. I will still put O’Hearn as my worst only because, unlike David Estudillo who actually could answer basic questions at his hearing & has some progressives background defending immigrants, O’Hearn couldn’t even answer basic legal questions during her hearing. And she has a background defending the opposite side of defendants most progressives care about.

        I will watch Rearden’s hearing closely but I would suspect she can at least answer basic legal questions. I am sure I am missing something in her background because I have a hard time Schumer & Gillibrand would recommend her TWICE if she is as bad as she looks on paper. For those reasons I will still say O’Hearn is the worst but I will admit there is a chance I would amend that & agree with Shawn depending on the next couple of months.

        If I was a senator so far O’Hearn is the only Biden nominee I would have voted against. I would have held my nose & voted for Estudillo because of the reasons I mentioned above despite there being much better options, even Latino options from Washington state. I would have a serious talk with Schumer & Gillibrand & let them no as of right now I am a NO on Rearden & she needs to work me to a yes.

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      • @Dequan

        I disagree. Christine O’Hearn was horrible, I agree. Rearden is even worse.
        I strongly suspect that the appointment of Rearden is also political patronage. Rearden worked with Kirsten Gillibrand in defending the tobacco companies in the 1990s and reportedly is a close friend.
        Rearden helped put an environmental attorney in jail with a bogus trial. She’s represented a whole bunch of bad characters against progressive causes, even more so than O’Hearn. The difference is that this is a single district judge, not the DC Circuit or the Supreme Court.

        If I were a senator, I would be a pain in the ass the leadership. I would vote hell NO every single judge that I give an F to, a grade of F means they do not belong on that court. That includes Rearden, Childs, O’Hearn, Estudillo, Koh, Huie, Regina Rodriguez, and a perhaps a couple others. There is nothing that could be said to convince me to vote for bad nominees, especially in blue states with a Democratic Senate. If you are going to nominate bad nominees, get GOP votes them confirm them. Progressives senators should never vote to confirm them in this situation.
        I would have voted no on all these people in committee as well. In the case of O’Hearn it would have caused a tie vote in committee, and I would have voted no on the discharge petition as well. I would do the

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      • Despite all the crap that was said prior to the Dale Ho vote earlier this week, two Republican senators said something that was actually very true.

        Ted Cruz said he actually commends Democrats for their party loyalty because Republicans will sink a Republican nominee but Democrats stick together & confirm their nominees regardless. That of course could be a good & bad thing at different times.

        I think the more important comment was made by Tom Cotton. He said when there is a Republican president a lot of bad nominees are blocked before they are even nominated. Despite all of the talk about the bad nominees voted down in committee, there would have been a lot more had they not fought so hard before the nomination occurs. I think this is something Democrats need to get much better at.

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      • @Dequan

        I agree with you on both Cruz and Cotton’s comments. But I put the blame for this less on the other senators than Biden and Remus. They need senators like Feinstein, Menendez, Booker, Gillibrand, Bennet, Hickenlooper, Warner etc that their nominees are crap and to find better ones.
        I don’t know how Estudillo was allowed to get through as the Murray/Cantwell committee is pretty decent and has largely come up with good nominees. I mean former Obama nominee J. Michael Diaz (born 1974), a very progressive AUSA and state court judge was available.

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  4. On another note, I think there is a decent shot that Cristina M. Rodríguez will be nominated to one of the two court of appeals 2nd circuit seats in Connecticut. She was born in Texas so I wouldn’t mind her for the 5th circuit either. She will be 49 years old in a couple of weeks. Her being in eth February batch would be a good birthday present.

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