Nancy Maldonado – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

The Dirksen Courthouse - where the Northern District of Illinois sits.

Employment attorney Nancy Maldonado clerked for Judge Ruben Castillo, the first Hispanic judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Maldonado is now poised to become the first Hispanic woman on the Northern District.

Background

Born on November 28, 1975, Maldonado attended Harvard College, graduating cum laude in 1997. She then attended the Columbia Law School, graduating in 2001.

After graduating, Maldonado clerked for Judge Ruben Castillo on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. After finishing up her clerkship, Maldonado joined the Chicago Office of Miner, Barnhill, & Garland as an Associate. She became a Partner at the firm in 2010 and currently serves in that capacity.

History of the Seat

Maldonado has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. This seat opened on October 7, 2021, when Judge Matthew Kennelly moved to senior status.

In December 2021, Maldonado was one of seven candidates recommended for the Northern District of Illinois by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin and Senator Tammy Duckworth. See Jeremy Gorner, Former ACLU Attorney Among 7 Recommended for Federal Bench; Senators Send Names to Biden to Fill Judicial Vacancy, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 22, 2021. Maldonado’s nomination was announced on April 13, 2022.

Legal Experience

Maldonado has spent her entire legal career at Miner, Barnhill, & Garland, where she primarily focuses on employment litigation, representing both plaintiffs and defendants. Notably, Maldonado represented Dilan Abreu, a bricklayer who sued over workplace harassment over his race at the Chicago Department of Water Management. See Ray Long and Hal Dardick, Latino Worker Alleges Abuse in Water Department; Says Boss Tried to Throw Him in a Hole, Called Him ‘dumb Puerto Rican’, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 29, 2019. Abreu notably alleged that his boss retaliated against him for objecting to racist behavior by trying to push him into a 6-foot deep hole. See id.

Maldonado was also part of the legal team for Maura Anne Stuart, a commercial driver whose gender discrimination suit was thrown out by Judge Milton Shadur. See Stuart v. Local 727, Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, 771 F.3d 1014 (7th Cir. 2014). Maldonado persuaded a panel of the Seventh Circuit to reverse the dismissal (the panel also reassigned the case, citing the “tone of derision” in Judge Shadur’s opinion). See id. at 1020.

In non-employment related matters, Maldonado was part of the legal team filing an amicus brief from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in an Illinois state court suit challenging the Cook County Assault Weapons Ban under the Second Amendment. See Wilson v. Cnty. of Cook, 968 N.E.2d 641 (Ill. 2012). She also represented citizens in a 1983 suit against officials who allegedly barred citizens from expressing opposition to a local towing ordinance. See Surita v. Hyde, 665 F.3d 860 (7th Cir. 2011).

Political Activity & Memberships

Maldonado has made a number of political contributions in the last few years, including to President Obama, Sen. Michael Bennet, and Rep. Colin Allred.

Additionally, Maldonado is active in the Chicago legal community, serving on the Board of Directors of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and of La Casa Norte, a social service organization serving Chicago youth.

Overall Assessment

As a nominee, Nancy Maldonado falls within the mainstream of Illinois district court nominees confirmed to the bench in the last decade. While her experience is largely focused on employment litigation, Maldonado has extensive experience in both state and federal court, and, given the support of Senate Judiciary Chair Durbin, she is likely to have a fairly swift confirmation.

Judge John Lee – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Judge John Lee has been sitting on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois for the last decade. He is now poised for elevation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Background

John Zihun Lee was born in Aachen, Germany on March 30, 1968. Lee attended Harvard College, getting an A.B. in 1989. He continued on to Harvard Law School, getting his J.D. in 1992.

After graduating law school, Lee joined the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1994, Lee moved to Chicago to become an Associate with Mayer Brown. In 1996, Lee moved to Grippo & Elden LLC. In 1999, Lee became an Associate at Freeborn & Peters LLC, where he became a Partner in 2001.

On November 10, 2011, Lee was nominated by President Barack Obama for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois vacated by Judge David Coar. Lee was confirmed unanimously by the Senate on May 7, 2012. He serves as a federal district judge today.

History of the Seat

Lee has been nominated for a Illinois seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. This seat opened when Judge Diane Wood indicated her intention to take senior status upon confirmation of a successor.

Legal Career

Lee began his legal career at the Department of Justice, focusing on environmental cases in the Third, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits. In 1994, he moved to Chicago to join Mayer Brown and has been in private practice since, working primarily on antitrust, employment, and tort cases.

Among the most notable cases he has handled, Lee represented McDonald’s in a trademark and copyright dispute involving a license to produce toys along the Bratz toy line. McDonald’s Corp. v. MGA Entertainment, Inc., 03-C-1026 (N.D. Ill.) (Gettleman, J.). Lee also represented defendants in a price fixing lawsuit involving the sulfuric acid industry. In re Sulfuric Acid Antitrust Litig., 03-CV-4576 (N.D. Ill.) (Holderman, J.).

Political Activity

Lee has two political contributions to his name, one to President Obama and one to Durbin, both in the 2008 cycle.

Jurisprudence & Reversals

Lee has served as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois for the last ten years. Among the notable cases that Lee has presided over, Lee declined to issue a preliminary injunction to stop the closure of 49 Chicago elementary schools, ruling that there was no evidence supporting a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities. See Lauren Fitzpatrick, Case Closed: Ruling Means Schools Won’t Reopen, Chicago Sun-Times, Aug. 16, 2013. Other notable decisions are summarized below.

Edmonds Sentencings

In 2016, Lee presided over sentencings for Hasan Edmonds and Jonas Edmonds, cousins charged with plotting to attack a National Guard base. See Jon Seidel, Hasan Edmonds Gets 30 Years For Plot On National Guard Base, Chicago Sun-Times, Sept. 20, 2016. Lee sentenced Hasan to 30 years in prison, and Jonas to 21 years, stating from the bench that their actions reflected “utter hatred and disdain for this country.” See id.

Stay-at-Home COVID Orders

In 2020, Lee ruled against one of the earliest lawsuits challenging Covid-19 stay-at-home orders under the First Amendment, ruling that the rights of the plaintiff church were not violated given Supreme Court precedent in the Jacobsen and Prince cases. See Ben Pope, U.S. District Judge Rules Pritzker’s Stay-At-Home Order Constitutional, Chicago Sun-Times, May 3, 2020.

Opinions by Designation

In addition to his time as a district court judge, Lee has sat by designation on occasion with the Seventh Circuit. While on the court, Lee has authored a number of opinions, generally unanimous ones. See, e.g., Judson Atkinson Candies Inc. v. Kenray Assocs., 719 F.3d 635 (7th Cir. 2013).

One notable exception was in Henry v. Hulett. In that decision, a 2-1 panel of the Seventh Circuit rejected a civil rights suit brought by inmates in an Illinois prison who were subjected to strip and body cavity searches. See 930 F.3d 836 (7th Cir. 2019). However, in dissent, Lee disagreed with the majority that the strip searches were permissible because the prisoners themselves were required to conduct the body cavity searches. See id. at 839 (Lee, J., dissenting). The Seventh Circuit then took the case en banc and overturned the panel decision, largely agreeing with Lee’s reasoning. See Henry v. Hulett, 969 F.3d 769 (7th Cir. 2020) (en banc).

Reversals

In his time on the bench, Lee has generally seen his rulings affirmed by the Seventh Circuit. However, they have reversed Lee in a handful of cases. For example, in Addison Automatics, Inc. v. Hartford Cas. Ins. Co., 731 F.3d 740 (7th Cir. 2013), the Seventh Circuit reversed Lee’s decision to remand a class action suit to state court. Similarly, the Seventh Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment to a union in a breach of duty of fair representation suit. See Rupcich v. UFCW Int’l Union Local 881, 833 F.3d 847 (7th Cir. 2016).

Overall Assessment

Lee comes to the confirmation process with a long judicial paper trail. With this tenure as a federal judge, Lee’s qualifications for the appellate bench are unquestionable.

However, Lee’s rulings upholding Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders are likely to draw particular scrutiny, especially as COVID-19 restrictions are significantly more controversial today. While Lee is still strongly favored for confirmation, his confirmation is unlikely to mirror his unanimous approval in 2012.

Looking Beyond the Supreme Court – the Administration Reaches a Crucial Time on Judges

Barring the unexpected, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be confirmed to the Supreme Court this week, capping a ten week nomination and confirmation process since Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement announcement in late January. While the Administration would likely take a (deserved) victory lap over Jackson’s confirmation, the most crucial period for securing Biden’s judicial legacy begins after.

While the Biden Administration came into office with comparatively few judicial vacancies to fill, a rash of Democratic appointees moving to senior status has created an opportunity for the Administration to leave a substantial imprint on the lower courts. Jackson’s confirmation will leave 24 lower court nominees left before the Senate, while pales in comparison to the 108 pending judicial vacancies listed on the U.S. Courts website. The situation is even more significant, given that many confirmed vacancies, including those by Third Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro, Ninth Circuit Judges Andew Hurwitz, Margaret McKeown, and Sidney Runyan Thomas, and D.D.C. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, are not public on the site yet. As such, the administration has around 90 vacancies on the federal bench with no nominees pending. Given that, fourteen months into his Presidency, Biden has yet to send 90 judicial nominees to the Senate, the Administration will have to move fast to have any hope of filling a substantial number of these vacancies.

Consider that the Administration has failed to name a single lower court judge to the bench since Judge Stephanie Davis was tapped two months ago. This is likely because the White House is strategically choosing to hold lower court nominations, including those that may be controversial, in order to avoid muddying the waters for Jackson. This means that the Biden Administration’s 82 nominees submitted to the Senate so far are slightly lower than the 98 judges nominated by President Bush and the 87 nominated by President Trump. Biden is particularly behind on circuit court nominations, having nominated 20, while Trump had made 25 as of this point in his Presidency, while President Bush had nominated 31. Even President Obama, rightfully criticized for a slow pace on nominations, had named 18 appellate nominees by April 1 of the second year of his presidency. With the Senate having confirmed 15 judges, only five of the 24 appellate vacancies currently pending have a nominee.

On the confirmation side, the Biden Administration has run far ahead of its immediate predecessors. For example, the Biden Administration has seen 58 judges confirmed so far, and the Trump Administration only saw 29 judges at this point in its Presidency, while the Obama Administration only saw 19. However, both prior Administrations had run behind their predecessors. Both the Clinton and Bush Administrations, for example, had seen 45-50 judges confirmed by this point in their Presidency, just slightly behind the Biden Administration.

However, on average, a judicial nominee in the Biden Administration has taken 4 months from nomination to confirmation. This means that, in order to be confirmed before the August recess (after which many Democratic senators may be absent campaigning in their home states), nominees need to be sent to the Senate now. Additionally, any nominees sent will likely also run into the limited space in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, which typically occur every two weeks and include 4-6 nominees each. All this makes the next month or two crucial for nominations. Any nominee nominated later than early May may not see confirmation this year.

To be fair, none of this to say that the Biden administration hasn’t had a significant impact on the federal judiciary. One could argue that, given the bare majority they control, Democrats have outperformed expectations. However, the Administration now faces both an opportunity and a ticking clock. Due to a large number of judges moving to senior status, Biden could easily outperform the 30 judges that Trump was able to confirm to the courts of appeals in his first two years. However, for the Biden Administration to cement its judicial legacy, it will need to urgently snap back onto the lower courts. The first step might be if large batch of nominees, including 5-6 appellate picks, hits the Senate after the Jackson confirmation this week.