Justice Britt Grant – Nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Justice Britt C. Grant is President Trump’s third nominee to the Eleventh Circuit. Like Trump’s first nominee, Kevin Newsom, Grant is a former state solicitor general (Grant of Georgia, Newsom of Alabama). Like Trump’s second nominee, Lisa Branch, Grant worked as a BigLaw commercial litigator and subsequently served as a state appeals courts judge (Grant of the Supreme Court of Georgia, Branch of the Georgia Court of Appeals). Like both Newsom and Branch, Grant is a longtime member of the Federalist Society. Although Grant–if confirmed–will be replacing an Obama appointee, Julie Carnes, the replacement will not likely have an immediate effect on the ideological balance of the court because Carnes herself most frequently votes in divided cases with her more conservative colleagues (as did the judge that Lisa Branch replaced, Frank Hull).

Background

Britt Cagle[1] Grant is a 40-year-old Atlanta native who graduated summa cum laude from Wake Forest University in 2000 and graduated with distinction from Stanford Law School in 2007.[2] Between the two, she worked for then-Congressman (now-Governor) Nathan Deal’s office, followed by several years of domestic-policy work in the White House of George W. Bush.[3]

While in law school, Grant served as the president of the Stanford Federalist Society, the co-founder and co-president of the Stanford National Security and the Law Society, and the managing editor of the Stanford Journal of International Law.[4] She then clerked for conservative superstar Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the D.C. Circuit (2007-2008) before turning to a multi-year stint doing commercial litigation at the D.C. office of Kirkland & Ellis.[5] In 2012, she left Washington to work for the Georgia Attorney General’s office. She worked first as “Counsel for Legal Policy,” and then in January 2015 she was appointed Solicitor General of Georgia, in which role she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court of Georgia by her former boss, now-Governor Nathan Deal, in January 2017.[6] She is the Georgia Supreme Court’s third female justice in history,[7] and she serves alongside the second female justice, Carol Hunstein.[8] At her swearing in, Grant “promised to honor the rule of law with humility and fairness. And she set another goal: ‘clarity and coherence.’”[9] A few months after her appointment, the Georgia Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Hines had this to say about Grant and her fellow recent appointee Nels Peterson: “They are as bright as new pennies. And they’re good people.”[10]

Grant is a member of the American Law Institute, the Joseph Henry Lumpkin American Inn of Court, the Appellate Practice Section of the Georgia Bar, and the Emory University Board of Visitors.[11] She has also served on various Supreme Court of Georgia Committee concerning matters such as professionalism, dispute resolution, and public trust.[12] Grant also serves on the Federalism & Separation of Powers Executive Committee of the Federalist Society and is also a member of the advisory board of the Atlanta chapter of that group.[13] (The Federalist Society’s Separation of Powers practice group’s Executive Committee seems to be a particular productive reservoir of Trump nominees. I noted in my post on Kevin Newsom that he had been a member of that same committee, along with current Eleventh Circuit Judge William Pryor and fellow Trump nominee David Stras, who has since been confirmed to the Eighth Circuit. Grant’s nomination is thus at least the third Trump nomination to come from that committee. I am no longer able to determine the other current members of that committee, because following the publication of my post on Kevin Newsom, the Federalist Society has taken down the list of committee members from their website,[14] although the website makes clear that each committee indeed still does have an executive committee that meets once a month.[15])

Although there is no current vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, in November 2017, Grant was added to President Trump’s running list of possible Supreme Court nominees (which includes her former boss, Judge Kavanaugh).[16]

History of the Seat

Grant has been nominated to a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to a seat opened by Judge Julie Carnes’s move to senior status in June 2018.  As noted, however, Grant had been on the White House’s radar much earlier.  She was vetted in 2017 for the vacancy opened by Judge Frank Hull’s move to senior status, a vacancy ultimately filled by Judge Lisa Branch.[17]

Legal Career

Grant’s career in litigation relevant to her nominated position appears to be limited to her years as Georgia’s Solicitor General. In that capacity, she appeared in some capacity (i.e., with her name appearing on the briefs) in eighteen cases before the Supreme Court of Georgia.[18] Of those eighteen, certiorari was denied in five,[19] three were transferred to the Georgia Court of Appeals,[20] one was an application for interlocutory appeal that was denied (Grant was Appellee),[21] one was dismissed on a motion to dismiss (Grant was Appellee),[22] and the remaining eight were disposed of through opinions. Of those eight, she served as a neutral amicus in one,[23] and among the remaining seven, her office won six and lost one. The wins: she was appellee in Olvera v. University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents[24] and amicus appellee in Hertz v. Bennett,[25] and the opinions below were unanimously affirmed; as appellant in McKinney v. Fuciarelli,[26] Kemp v. Monroe County,[27] and In the Interest of B.R.F. f/k/a/ B.R.M.,[28] she won unanimous reversal or vacate-and-remand; and as appellant in Turner v. Georgia River Network,[29] she won reversal with the support of all those participating except Justice Melton, who dissented.The case her office lost was Grady County Board of Commissioners v. Georgia River Network,[30] with all those participating voting against her team–except Justice Melton.

Her briefing in those cases before the Supreme Court of Georgia reflects traditional adherence to text–with a willingness to look beyond text when it is helpful to advance the needs of the case–and deference to the legislature. In one case concerning sovereign immunity, her office explored the history of various provisions of the Georgia Constitution and wrote: “If the public interest in avoiding what could occasionally be viewed as harsh or unfair results outweighs the public interest in sovereign immunity, then the people of Georgia – through the General Assembly – have the constitutional authority to waive it.”[31] She spoke to “fidelity to the text of the statute” in one case, and argued that the bar to establish the absurdity exception to overcome plain meaning is high one, citing Joseph Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States.[32] In other cases, she did not limit herself to plain language, contending in one that “The cardinal rule of statutory construction is to seek the intent of the Legislature, and language in part of a statute must be construed in light of the legislative intent as found in the statute as a whole”;[33] in another: “Both text and practice demonstrate that the Board of Regents is not subject to the APA.”[34]

In her briefing, Grant also demonstrated sympathy for practical considerations. Where the Court of Appeals had granted an out-of-time appeal because “a constitutional violation concerning the appeal occurred when the mother’s right to file an application for discretionary appeal with the assistance of a court-appointed attorney was frustrated because of the ineffective assistance or denial of counsel,”[35] Grant acknowledged the burden on the mother–“To be sure, it is regrettable that the mother was unaware that she had the right to counsel for an appeal.”–but bemoaned the “dangers” of the decision of the Court of Appeals: “So long as there is the possibility of an out-of-time discretionary appeal, there will be no certainty for any deprived child that his or her stable, permanent home placement will be maintained. As this Court has recognized, ‘languishing in temporary care’ is not healthy for deprived children, who ‘need permanence of home and emotional stability or they are likely to suffer serious emotional problems.’”[36]

Grant also filed numerous briefs in the Georgia Court of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. In the Eleventh Circuit, she was involved in litigation concerning the EPA’s  “Waters of the United States Rule,”[37] with her jurisdictional arguments ultimately being vindicated in the Supreme Court earlier this year (in a case other than hers).[38]

Her experience leading cases as party counsel before the Supreme Court of the United States includes one case while she was in private practice and four as Georgia’s Solicitor General:

Although the papers do not appear to list her as named counsel in the original-jurisdiction case of Florida v. Georgia (a water case that is still ongoing well after her departure),[39] Grant states that she supervised the litigation team, “provided strategic oversight and budget management, edited briefs, represented the State in status conferences, worked with State officials on budgetary issues, and participated in trial preparation.”[40]

In McLaughlin v. Lejeune, the U.S. Supreme Court denied her cert petition challenging a Georgia Supreme Court decision that refused to apply harmless-error analysis in determining the validity of guilty pleas.  In that case, the defendant was not advised “of the three rights identified in Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238 (1969),” “i.e., the rights to trial by jury, to confront one’s accusers and the privilege against compelled self-incrimination.”[41] Three justices of the Georgia Supreme Court had dissented in the decision below,[42] and Governor Deal has since appointed three new justices to the court–including Grant–such that there may now potentially be more than enough votes to overrule the prior decision, should it come before the court again. Such a case would permit one to determine whether the view Grant advocated in her cert petition tracks her own view, but the issue does not appear to have come before the court again since that time–at least not in a form that has resulted in a written opinion.

Grant filed a brief opposing cert in Alves v. Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, and that petition was denied as well.[43] In Alves, two members of an Eleventh Circuit panel (Judge Wilson and District Judge William Terrell Hodges) held–over Judge Martin’s dissent–that a “written grievance by five [Georgie State University] employees alleging mismanagement by their supervisor which preceded their termination” was not entitled to First Amendment protection.[44] In defending this result, Grant first suggested the case was a poor vehicle for Supreme Court review given that a separate state-court ruling issued a few days prior to the filing of the brief would render the First Amendment question moot once the state-court decision became final.[45] On the merits, while Judge Martin believed the employees were speaking as citizens on matters of public concern,[46] Grant contended that “Petitioners’ attempt to portray their speech as having broader implications for the GSU community amounts to garden-variety complaining about their employment conditions and the tasks they were asked to perform. The gravamen of Petitioners’ memorandum was that they disagreed with the policies their supervisor was implementing . . . . It was only incident to voicing their personal concerns that Petitioners’ remarks touched upon matters that might potentially affect the student body. To hold otherwise would allow Petitioners to constitutionalize a run-of-the-mill employee grievance through inclusion of calculated buzzwords regarding issues that, after investigation, proved to be unfounded.”[47]

Another case, this one decided on the merits, was Foster v. ChatmanFoster was a Batson case in which Chief Justice Roberts–joined by seven other justices (only Justice Thomas dissented)–held that the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision that Foster failed to show purposeful discrimination in jury selection was clearly erroneous. Grant’s office had argued in its brief that “[t]he facially neutral notes on black prospective jurors, taken eight months after Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), are not evidence of the State’s intention to engage in purposeful discrimination as alleged by Foster. Instead, they are the result of the State’s efforts to rebut contentions of discrimination.”[48] The State contended that Foster “has failed to show anything but an attempt by a racially diverse prosecution team to demonstrate its compliance with the new evidentiary requirements outlined in Batson.”[49] Chief Justice Roberts squarely rejected this argument, saying it “falls flat”: first, it “reeks of afterthought, having never before been made in the nearly 30-year history of this litigation: not in the trial court, not in the state habeas court, and not even in the State’s brief in opposition to Foster’s petition for certiorari. In addition, the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”[50] Curiously, while Grant’s name appears on the Joint Appendix of the case,[51] it does not appear on the merits brief just quoted, even though the other four attorneys who appeared with her on the Joint Appendix do indeed appear on it.[52] The Supreme Court’s docket for the case does not appear to contain any explanation for this.

Contrary to what might be expected, the representation that led to the most splintered Supreme Court decision was not in her capacity as Solicitor General but rather in her earlier private practice. In Shady Grove Orthopedic Associates v. Allstate Insurance Company, the Supreme Court held that a New York law placing limits on class actions did not preclude a federal district court sitting in diversity from entertaining a class action under Rule 23.[53] Grant’s brief[54] did not carry the day, although the case produced a highly unusual split, with Justice Scalia writing (for portions of the opinion) for Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Thomas, and Sotomayor, while Justice Ginsburg wrote in dissent for Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Alito.

These cases do not encompass all of Grant’s participation at the Supreme Court of the United States. She was also party counsel for the State of Georgia–but not for the leading state, Texas–in the multi-state challenge to DAPA (Deferred Actions for Parents of Americans), Texas v. United States.[55] And under her leadership, Georgia also participated as amicus in numerous other cases that resulted in highly splintered opinions: Shelby County v. Holder (state coverage under the Voting Rights Act),[56] Town of Greece v. Galloway (legislative prayer),[57] Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate),[58] Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (public-employee unions),[59] Obergefell v. Hodges (marriage for same-sex couples),[60] Glossip v. Gross (lethal-injection protocols),[61] and Gloucester Cty. Sch. Bd. v. G.G. (rights of transgender students),[62] among others.[63] Her Senate questionnaire indicates that for these cases, she “drafted, reviewed, or edited” the relevant filings.[64] Her name does not appear as counsel on them, however. Instead, the briefs list the name of Georgia’s attorney general at the time.

Jurisprudence

By my count, Grant–as a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia–has written over 40 majority opinions. All but seven were unanimous in reasoning and result,[65] and two were unanimous but contained an additional concurring opinion.[66]

Of the seven majority opinions by Grant that were not unanimous, only two contained an additional opinion actually explaining the disagreement.[67] In both of those concurring opinions, her fellow justices “concurring specially” expressed the view that Grant had decided more than she needed to. In one case concerning official immunity (in particular, the question whether the defendant’s acts were discretionary or ministerial), Barnett v. Caldwell, Justice Melton (joined by Justice Hunstein) stated:

Although I concur with the analysis in the body of the majority opinion, I must write separately because I believe that dicta in footnote two sets forth an overly broad rule that is not applicable to the facts of this case. The majority suggests that: “An action or failure to act is either discretionary or not, and an official cannot alter that fact by doing it well, poorly, or not at all.” I disagree with this statement, and, more fundamentally, I disagree with the majority’s decision to expound upon the issue at all. The judicial process is served neither by inserting unnecessary and complicated issues into a case, nor by proclaiming unwavering rules to govern such complicated issues. The majority does both. I believe that this issue was handled more appropriately by Justice Peterson, who authored the opinion below [(and was thus disqualified in this particular case)]. Justice Peterson reasoned as follows:

Caldwell suggests that a total failure to comply with Section 6.5 would nevertheless be a discretionary act entitled to official immunity. We view such an argument through skeptical eyes, because a total failure to perform an act may involve no exercise of discretion or deliberation whatsoever, and it is not clear that such a failure would be considered a discretionary act covered by official immunity. But given our resolution of this appeal, it is not necessary to decide this question.

Far reaching (and, in this case, overly broad) rules like the one proposed by the majority should not be created in dicta, especially in an area of the law which requires an in depth consideration of the law and facts on a case-by-case basis. For this reason, I cannot concur with the analysis set forth in footnote two.[[68]]

In a separate case, Chrysler Group LLC v. Walden, Grant held that compensation evidence “is subject to the Rule 403 analysis weighing the evidence’s unfair prejudice against its probative value.” Grant noted that Chrysler did not object and thus analyzed the question under the plain-error standard instead of the abuse-of-discretion standard, and–finding no “clear and obvious reversible error”–affirmed the judgment below.[69] Justice Peterson, joined by Justice Boggs, took issue that Grant’s opinion went beyond those points:

I agree with each of those premises, and they are all that is necessary to decide the question this case presents. As such, the cardinal principle of judicial restraint—if it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more—counsels us to go no further. But Division II (B) does not stop there; it goes much further (mostly in dicta), and often with sweeping language that travels far beyond this case. Respectfully, I cannot go along.[[70]]

Notably, Justice Melton (who had authored the special concurrence in Barnett suggesting that Grant had gone too far), wrote his own concurring opinion, stating that “[e]ven when considered in light of the concurrence from Justice Peterson, I agree with the analysis in the majority opinion.”[71]

The final majority opinion I will mention is Levis v. State, in which Grant issued a unanimous-in-result opinion reversing a felony-murder conviction on October 31, 2017,[72] then issued another unanimous-in-result opinion on December 11, 2017, superseding the prior opinion and upholding the felony-murder conviction.[73] Each opinion began this way: “Following a jury trial, Lisa Ann Lebis appeals her convictions of felony murder and other crimes related to the shooting death of Officer Sean Callahan. Lebis contends that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict with regard to a number of counts against her and that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance in the case.”[74] The October 2017 opinion continued:  “For the reasons set forth below, we affirm in part and reverse in part—affirming Lebis’s convictions of two of the misdemeanor obstruction counts and all of the counts regarding possession of firearms and dangerous weapons; but reversing her conviction of felony murder and of the other two misdemeanor obstructions.”[75] And the December 2017 opinion continued: “For the reasons set forth below, we affirm in part and reverse in part—affirming Lebis’s convictions of two of the misdemeanor obstruction counts, all of the counts regarding possession of firearms and dangerous weapons, and of felony murder; but reversing her conviction of the other two misdemeanor obstructions.”[76] With respect to the felony murder charge, the October 2017 opinion stated that “[a] more difficult question arises when we consider Lebis’s argument that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law in relation to her conviction of felony murder as charged in the indictment,” ultimately reaching this conclusion:

That understanding renders Lebis’s felony murder conviction improper. Although the indictment charged Lebis with felony murder as a party to the crime, it specified that the predicate felony was Lebis’s joint possession of the murder weapon at the time Tremaine used it to shoot Officer Callahan. But Lebis’s prior constructive possession of the Glock when it was kept with the other weapons in the motel room does not bear on whether she possessed it at the time of the murder as charged in the indictment. The indictment required the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Lebis jointly possessed the murder weapon at the time of the murder; the evidence does not support her joint possession of the Glock at that time. Because the evidence was insufficient to support the charge of felony murder as set forth in the indictment, Lebis’s conviction for this crime must be reversed.[[77]]

In contrast, the December 2017 opinion started that section by declaring, “The evidence was also sufficient to support the jury’s verdict that Lebis was guilty of felony murder as a party to her husband’s possession of a firearm as a convicted felon—a criminal act that proximately caused the death of Officer Callahan.” Explaining, Grant stated:

[A] defendant can be held responsible for the actions of another as a party to the crime or as a co-conspirator, without also concluding that the defendant constructively possessed the contraband actually and solely possessed by another. So even though Lebis did not jointly possess that firearm with Tremaine at the moment of the murder, it remains true that she can be held to account for the actions of another—here, her husband—as a party to the crime or as a co-conspirator. Accordingly, her arguments that she did not constructively possess the firearm do not help her escape responsibility for the crime.

As to the variance in the indictment, the majority opinion now had this to say:

Although Lebis raised sufficiency of the evidence rather than a “fatal variance” between the language of the indictment, which charged joint possession, and the proof at trial, we also note that any suggestion of such a fatal variance would also fail. Our courts no longer employ an overly technical application of the fatal variance rule, focusing instead on materiality. The true inquiry, therefore, is not whether there has been a variance in proof, but whether there has been such a variance as to affect the substantial rights of the accused.[[78]]

Grant has also participated in opinions as a concurring colleague. In at least two cases, she concurred in only the judgment as to certain portions of an opinion, but she did not write an opinion explaining the disagreement (as appears to be common in Georgia Supreme Court cases).[79]

She wrote a concurring opinion (joined by Justice Nahmias) in Schumacher v. City of Roswell, which made clear again her focus on following clear textual commands (and the frustration of not having them):

I join the Court’s opinion in full, including its conclusion that the only issue decided today is that a freestanding challenge to the facial validity of a zoning ordinance, unaccompanied by any complaint regarding an individualized determination impacting a particular parcel of land, does not challenge a “decision” of an “administrative agency” under OCGA § 5-6-35 (a) (1). This decision is consistent with the text of the statute, and accordingly with our responsibility as judges to apply even complicated statutes as they are written by the General Assembly.

That said, I understand and appreciate the concerns of the dissenting opinion regarding the lack of clarity in appellate procedures. More often than not, one would expect a close adherence to the textual demands of a statute to lead to greater clarity in the law; an attorney should be able to turn to the statute in the codebook and determine whether a direct appeal or an application is appropriate in a given case. That ideal is not necessarily met here. But the dissent’s approach does not add clarity either, seeking to extend a rationale that we have already deemed to have “fallacies.”

Even in the context of zoning, which has purportedly been the subject of a “bright line rule,” this Court has not been able to agree on which cases require an application. . . .

We recently attempted to bring some needed clarity to this interpretive enterprise by explaining in Keystone Knights that decisions can be “adjudicative,” “legislative,” or “executive,” and that an application is required to seek review of “adjudicative” decisions by administrative agencies. That decision was a valuable step in asserting order over our jurisprudence in this area, but it still left much to be divined by practicing attorneys. Of course, in fairness to Keystone Knights, the complexity of the analysis required under any approach that takes statutory language seriously counsels in favor of a legislative solution. What, for example, is a “decision”? Or an “administrative agency”? And what is the answer when a case raises claims regarding legislative, executive, and adjudicative decisions by a government entity acting in different capacities with respect to each of the “decisions”? The statute invites rather than answers these questions, and we can only do so much to simplify while also remaining faithful to its text.

Accordingly, the General Assembly may wish to clarify the scope of the matters that are subject to the discretionary appeal process. Until then, the best path forward—as remarkable as this is—may well be to follow the advice of two leading Georgia appellate treatises and file a discretionary application in every instance where there is any doubt.[[80]]

And in State v. Cohen (part of the “Waffle House sex tape” saga), Grant herself (joined by Justices Hunstein and Blackwell) contended that the majority decided a question it need not have.[81] That case concerned O.C.G.A. § 16-11-62(2), which states that a person may not use any device “to observe, photograph, or record the activities of another which occur in any private place and out of public view.” (That statute has been discussed on this blog before, as it was also the subject of a news-attracting opinion written by fellow Trump nominee Lisa Branch.[82]) The housekeeper and personal assistant to the chairman of Waffle House was accused of recording the two having sex,[83] and the majority held that:

Although there is nothing in the plain language of former OCGA § 16-11-62 (2) to indicate that Rogers and the other person in the residence would no longer have a reasonable expectation to be safe from the “hostile intrusion” of having their activities secretly video recorded once Brindle entered the residence, and although there is nothing in the former version of OCGA § 16-11-62 (2) to show that the reasonable expectation to be safe from “hostile intrusion or surveillance” under the statute is coextensive with one’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, we have in the past looked to Fourth Amendment jurisprudence as a guide when interpreting the scope of privacy protected by OCGA § 16-11-62.[[84]]

Grant disagreed with looking to the Fourth Amendment. She noted that in contexts where “government agents were alleged to have illegally surveilled criminal defendants,” “it is no surprise at all to look toward the Fourth Amendment, which serves as a constitutional boundary to the behavior of the government. But here, in analyzing the actions taken by private parties, the Fourth Amendment provides something less than a useful guide; in fact, applying Fourth Amendment rules may even serve to confuse rather than clarify the meaning of the statute.”[85] She continued:

To begin, much of what the majority applies as seminal Fourth Amendment law had not yet been announced by the United States Supreme Court at the time that OCGA § 16-11-62 was drafted. The “private place” definition at issue here was passed by the General Assembly in April 1967, while the United States Supreme Court did not issue its Katz decision until December of that same year.

Nor am I as certain as my colleague that when the General Assembly redefined “private place” to constitute “a place where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy,” the legislature was “squarely invoking the modern Fourth Amendment test.” Concurring op. at 634, 807 S.E.2d 861. (Nahmias, J. concurring in part and concurring specially in part). Perhaps Fourth Amendment tests are more relevant under the new version of the statute—or perhaps not. After all, the amended statute still addresses a privacy interest quite different than the one that we all share against government search and seizure. But we need not make that determination until the proper case is before us, and I would decline to do so here.[86]

Grant also wrote a concurring-in-part-and-dissenting-in-part opinion (joined by Justice Hunstein) in Sponsler v. Sponsler.[87]

Writings

Although Grant does not appear to have published any law-review articles herself, she served as a research assistant for two law-review articles on national-security issues.[88] This interest appears to be a family affair, as her husband once worked at the CIA.[89]

Overall Assessment

Justice Britt Grant appears, like Newsom and Branch before her, to be a mainstream conservative nominee to the Eleventh Circuit.  With the exception of Foster v. Chatman, Grant does not appear to have participated as a lead counsel in any particularly politically charged cases, and even in Foster, the extent of her participation is not clear. Nor, from the materials I have been able to check myself–her amicus briefs notwithstanding, and those do not list her as counsel–does she appear to have publicly expressed positions on the broader constitutional and civil-right questions that would invariably come before her as an Eleventh Circuit judge. Her record as a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court seems to be in line with the other justices on that court–broad unanimity. Her membership and participation in the Federalist Society confirms her conservative views, but her appointment is unlikely–in the short term–to affect the ideological makeup of the court given that the judge she would be replacing is also more conservative.


[1] State Bar of Georgia, Hon. Britt Cagle Grant, https://www.gabar.org/MemberSearchDetail.cfm?ID=MTEzNDAz.

[7] CLOSER LOOK, A new era begins for Georgia’s Supreme Court Deal appointed half of state’s 24 justices to 2 top appellate courts, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Jan. 10, 2017, 2017 WLNR 804272.

[9] Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for December 12, 2016, GaPundit, Dec. 12, 2016, 2016 WLNR 37904671.

[10] State’s chief justice visits Cairo, Thomasville Times-Enterprise (GA), May 18, 2017, 2017 WLNR 15729555.

[12] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong. Britt Grant: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees (Grant SJQ) at 5, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Grant%20SJQ.pdf.

[16] The Latest And Greatest In President Trump’s Judicial Nominations (Part 2), https://abovethelaw.com/2018/01/the-latest-and-greatest-in-president-trumps-judicial-nominations-part-2/2/

[31] Fulton County v. City of Atlanta, 2016 WL 3043850, at *3-9, *24 (Ga. 2016).

[32] McKinney v. Fuciarelli, 2015 WL 10549708, at *3, *18 (Ga.).

[33] Foster v. Ga. Reg’l Transp. Auth., 2015 WL 1576408, *24 (Ga.).

[34] Olvera v. University System of Ga.’s Bd. of Regents, 2015 WL 4641675, *11 (Ga.) (emphasis added).

[35] In Interest of B.R.F., 332 Ga. App. 49, 50, 770 S.E.2d 912, 914 (2015), vacated sub nom. In Interest of B.R.F, 299 Ga. 294, 788 S.E.2d 416 (2016).

[36] In the Interest of B.R.F.F/K/A B.R.M., A Child., 2015 WL 5822948, at *15, *17-18 (2015).

[37] Georgia v. McCarthy, No. 15-14035, 2016 WL 2897733 (C.A.11); Georgia v. McCarthy, No. 15-14035, 2016 WL 3227576 (C.A.11); Georgia v. McCarthy, No. 15-14035, 2015 WL 6163726 (C.A.11); Georgia v. McCarthy, No. 15-14035, 2015 WL 5608569 (C.A.11).

[38] Nat’l Ass’n of Mfrs. v. Dep’t of Def., 138 S. Ct. 617 (2018).

[40] Grant SJQ at 44-45.

[42] Lejeune v. McLaughlin, 299 Ga. 546, 789 S.E.2d 191 (2016).

[43] No. 15-971, 2016 WL 1298204 (U.S.).

[44] Alves v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Ga., 804 F.3d 1149, 1153 (11th Cir. 2015).

[45] Alves v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Ga., 2016 WL 1298204, *9-10 (2016).

[46] Alves v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Ga., 804 F.3d 1149, 1153 (11th Cir. 2015) (Martin, J., dissenting).

[47] Alves v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Ga., 2016 WL 1298204, *38-39 (2016) (citation, quotations, and alterations omitted).

[50] Foster v. Chatman, 136 S. Ct. 1737, 1755 (2016) (quotations and citation omitted).

[53] 559 U.S. 393 (2010).

[63] Grant SJQ at 43.

[64] Grant SJQ at 41.

[65] Ramirez v. State, 811 S.E.2d 416 (Ga. 2018); Barnett v. Caldwell, 302 Ga. 845, 809 S.E.2d 813 (2018); Sutherlin v. Sutherlin, 301 Ga. 581, 802 S.E.2d 204 (2017); Daniel v. State, 301 Ga. 783, 804 S.E.2d 61 (2017); Lebis v. State, 302 Ga. 750, 808 S.E.2d 724 (2017); Chrysler Grp. LLC v. Walden, No. S17G0832, 2018 WL 1323992 (Ga. Mar. 15, 2018); Simpkins v. State, No. S18A0063, 2018 WL 2089505 (Ga. May 7, 2018).

[66] Goodrum v. State, No. S17A1748, 2018 WL 1323269 (Ga. Mar. 15, 2018); Diversified Holdings, LLP v. City of Suwanee, 302 Ga. 597, 807 S.E.2d 876 (2017).

[67] Barnett v. Caldwell, 302 Ga. 845, 809 S.E.2d 813 (2018); Chrysler Grp. LLC v. Walden, No. S17G0832, 2018 WL 1323992 (Ga. Mar. 15, 2018).

[68] Barnett v. Caldwell, 302 Ga. 845, 852–53, 809 S.E.2d 813, 819 (2018) (Melton, J., concurring specially) (citation omitted).

[69] Chrysler Grp. LLC v. Walden, No. S17G0832, 2018 WL 1323992, at *1 (Ga. Mar. 15, 2018).

[70] Chrysler Grp. LLC v. Walden, No. S17G0832, 2018 WL 1323992, at *9 (Ga. Mar. 15, 2018) (quotations and citations omitted).

[71] Chrysler Grp. LLC v. Walden, No. S17G0832, 2018 WL 1323992, at *8 (Ga. Mar. 15, 2018).

[78] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=17412431040748197491&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr.

[79] Drews v. State, 810 S.E.2d 502 (Ga. 2018); Undisclosed LLC v. State, 302 Ga. 418, 807 S.E.2d 393 (2017).

[80] Schumacher v. City of Roswell, 301 Ga. 635, 641, 803 S.E.2d 66, 71–73 (2017) (Grant, J., concurring) (footnotes and citation omitted).

[81] State v. Cohen, 302 Ga. 616, 807 S.E.2d 861 (2017).

[84] State v. Cohen, 302 Ga. 616, 629, 807 S.E.2d 861, 871–72 (2017).

[85] State v. Cohen, 302 Ga. 616, 635, 807 S.E.2d 861, 875 (2017) (Grant., J., concurring specially in part).

[86] State v. Cohen, 302 Ga. 616, 635-36, 807 S.E.2d 861, 875–76 (2017) (Grant., J., concurring specially in part).

[87] Sponsler v. Sponsler, 301 Ga. 600, 800 S.E.2d 564 (2017).

[88] Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, “Securing” the Nation: Law, Politics, and Organization at the Federal Security Agency, 1939-1953, 76 U. Chi. L. Rev. 587 (2009); Dara Kay Cohen et. al., Crisis Bureaucracy: Homeland Security and the Political Design of Legal Mandates, 59 Stan. L. Rev. 673 (2006).

Elizabeth L. “Lisa” Branch – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Judge Elizabeth L. “Lisa” Branch, President Trump’s second nominee to the Eleventh Circuit, is a state appeals court judge in Georgia with experience in the George W. Bush administration and as a BigLaw commercial litigator. While she has not had the opportunity to opine much on constitutional law, either as an attorney or judge, Branch is a member of the conservative Federalist Society (as is Judge Kevin Newsom, Trump’s first pick for the Eleventh Circuit).  As such, her confirmation will likely ensure a conservative en banc Eleventh Circuit for the foreseeable future.

Background

Elizabeth Lee[1] Branch was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1968.[2] She graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina in 1990, and from the Emory University School of Law in 1994. At Emory, Branch served on the Emory Law Journal and was inducted into the Order of the Coif,[3] indicating her position in the top ten percent of her class.[4] After law school, she clerked for two years in Atlanta for Judge J. Owen Forrester of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.[5] Thereafter, from 1996 to 2004, she worked  at the law firm of Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP.[6] This was followed by four years in the Bush Administration, where she served in non-litigating positions,[7] first as the associate general counsel for rules and legislation at the Department of Homeland Security, then as the special assistant and counselor to the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) at the Office of Management and Budget.[8]

In 2008, Branch returned to Smith, Gambrell & Russell as a partner in the commercial litigation group,[9] also working some on government affairs.[10] In 2012, Branch was appointed by Governor Nathan Deal to the Georgia Court of Appeals.[11]

While at the Georgia Court of Appeals, Branch has served and continues to serve on various internal court committees, and from 2013 to 2017 she also served as a commissioner, appointed by Governor Deal,[12] on the Georgia Child Support Commission.[13]

Among many other affiliations, Branch has been a member of the Federalist Society since 2001.[14] She served on the Executive Board of the Atlanta Lawyers Chapter from approximately 2009 to 2012, and she has served on that chapter’s Board of Advisors from 2012 to the present.[15] From approximately 2001 to 2003, and from 2006 to 2009, she was a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association.[16] She was on the Chairman’s Council of the Fulton County Republican Party from approximately 2011-2012, and she was a member of the National Rifle Association from 2009 to 2014.[17]

Political Activities

Prior to becoming a judge, Branch engaged with several political campaigns as an unpaid volunteer, including participating in the Republican National Committee’s 2006 door-to-door efforts supporting Rick Santorum (unsuccessfully) for a third Senate term.

History of the Seat

Branch has been nominated for a Georgia seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The vacancy will result from Judge Frank Hull’s impending move to senior status.  As Hull, one of the court’s solidly conservative members, has indicated that she will not move to senior status until the confirmation of her successor, there is not an active vacancy currently on the Eleventh Circuit.

Legal Career

Branch has never practiced before the Supreme Court of the United States,[18] but rather has focused her career on commercial litigation and subsequent service in the federal government in a non-litigating position.[19] Having not served in an attorney general’s or solicitor general’s office, she does not have a record of making controversial arguments or supporting controversial laws.

As part of the U.S. Senate’s Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees, Judge Branch was required to list the ten most significant litigated matters that she personally handled.[20] All ten were civil, four settled, and none concerned constitutional law or civil-rights laws. Only one of the ten listed resulted in a reported decision.[21] As such, it is difficult to determine her legal views on almost any subject from her work as an attorney. Branch’s pre-judicial career as an attorney does not appear, by itself, to shed any light on her views of separation of powers, federalism, privacy, equal protection, due process, religious freedom, or speech, for example. As will be noted, this is true of her judicial career as well.

Jurisprudence

Although Branch has been a state appellate judge for more than five years and has participated in more than 1,500 cases,[22] her decisions say little about her views on constitutional law. This is because the Georgia Court of Appeals “has statewide appellate jurisdiction of all cases except those involving constitutional questions, murder, and habeas corpus cases where original appellate jurisdiction lies with the Supreme Court [of Georgia].”[23] Her court nevertheless has jurisdiction “to address constitutional issues when they are well-settled as a matter of law,” and Judge Branch participated in a number of criminal appeals raising constitutional issues.[24] As a whole, those criminal-law opinions do not reflect an anti-defendant bias. In a number of cases, Branch has granted new trials as a result of ineffective assistance of counsel[25] and reversed denials of motions of suppress (or affirmed the grant of a motion to suppress),[26] which resulted in some convictions being reversed.[27]

But, by and large, her views on major issues of constitutional law are not available to us from her judicial record. That is not to say, of course, that nothing can be gleaned from her prior cases.

In a case seemingly designed to end up in blog posts such as this, Judge Branch held in Gary v. State that a man could not be convicted of criminal invasion of privacy under O.C.G.A. § 16-11-62(2) for recording video up a woman’s skirt with his cell phone while at the grocery store.[28] Perhaps aware that the eyebrow-raising nature of the holding might draw attention–either upon entry of the decision or in future confirmation hearings such as the one at which she will soon appear–Judge Branch took pains to explain what she was and was not saying:

“Each of Gary’s first four enumerations of error turns on whether OCGA § 16–11–62 (2) criminalizes the conduct at issue. With respect to this question, both the State’s argument and the trial court’s holding focused on two propositions: (i) that Gary’s conduct was patently offensive and (ii) that a woman walking and shopping in a public place has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area of her body concealed by her clothing. We do not disagree with either of these propositions. Nor do we doubt that a woman whose body is surreptitiously photographed beneath her clothing has suffered an invasion of privacy of some kind. The question before this Court, however, is not whether the defendant’s conduct was offensive; it is not whether a person walking in a public place has a reasonable expectation of privacy as to certain areas of her body; and it is not whether the victim’s privacy was violated. Rather, the only issue presented by this appeal is whether the defendant’s conduct constitutes a criminal invasion of privacy, in violation of OCGA § 16–11–62 (2).

The answer to this question necessarily must begin with the language of OCGA § 16–11–62 (2) itself.”[29]

Turning to that language–which makes it illegal for “[a]ny person, through the use of any device, without the consent of all persons observed, to observe, photograph, or record the activities of another which occur in any private place and out of public view”–along with language from surrounding subsections and an earlier definitions section, Branch concluded that the term “private place” did not include a particular region of a person’s body.[30] Five of her colleagues joined her opinion, and together they noted “that it is regrettable that no law currently exists which criminalizes Gary’s reprehensible conduct. . . . The remedy for this problem, however, lies with the General Assembly, not with this Court. Both our constitutional system of government and the law of this State prohibit the judicial branch from amending a statute by interpreting its language so as to change the otherwise plain and unambiguous provisions thereof.”[31] Three judges dissented, finding that the very same “plain and unambiguous language” of the statute yielded the opposite result.[32]

Branch also resorted to plain statutory language in holding that two transgender men had a right to change their names, in In re Feldhaus.[33] (Disclosure: the ACLU, for whom I work, filed an amicus brief in the case.) Although she pointedly did not use personal pronouns to describe the men–instead employing an awkward “the person formerly known as x” formulation–the judge formerly and currently known as Lisa Branch appropriately recognized that all the Georgia name-change statute requires is that a person not change their name in an attempt to defraud others, and that the transgender petitioners’ attempts to change their names to ones consistent with their gender identity in the cases before her were not an attempt to defraud others.[34] In so holding, the judge formerly and currently known as Lisa Branch offered a clear rejection of the approach taken by the many state trial judges–not just in Georgia but across the country–who unlawfully burden transgender petitioners for name changes with additional requirements or criteria that are nowhere enumerated or implied and are not applied to any other class of petitioner.

Branch’s interpretation of purportedly plain language was not always uncontroversial. Beyond the skirt-photographing case described above, in the Cook case Judge Branch–joined by two colleagues–interpreted the federal Medicaid statute to be unambiguous in indicating that the Medicaid applicant’s purchase of an annuity was not subject to an asset-transfer penalty, and thus refused to defer to the relevant federal agency’s contrary interpretation.[35] The Supreme Court of Georgia–while splitting on the degree of agency deference required–unanimously disagreed that the language unambiguously required Branch’s interpretation.[36]

Preceding another prominent reversal on a matter of statutory interpretation, Branch formed part of a three-judge plurality that held that police officers of Agnes Scott College–a private college–were entitled to immunity as “state officer[s] or employee[s]” under the Georgia Tort Claims Act.[37] (One judge concurred in the judgment, while three judges dissented.)[38] The Supreme Court of Georgia unanimously reversed, finding it “clear that the Agnes Scott officers were not acting for any state government entity when they committed the alleged torts.”[39] Looking beyond the specific statutory provision considered by the Court of Appeals plurality, the Supreme Court of Georgia found that “reading the Georgia Tort Claims Act as a whole makes it abundantly clear that the immunity it provides is limited to torts committed by a ‘state officer or employee’ who was acting within the scope of his or her official duties or employment on behalf of a specific ‘state government entity.’”[40]

In each of the cases described above, the distinguishing factor between Branch and her colleagues or the parties was statutory interpretation. What was plain to her was sometimes plainly different to her colleagues. This, of course, is true of all judges, and it will surely continue to mark her future cases, whether she remains in her current position or is confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit.

Writings

Branch does not have many publicly available non-judicial writings. While at OIRA, she co-authored a law-review article entitled “Managing the Regulatory State: The Experience of the Bush Administration.”[41] While an assessment of the Bush Administration’s OMB–including its approach to “smart regulation” and its use of “prompt” letters–is well beyond the scope of this blog post,[42] the piece is notable for its surprisingly statist–relatively speaking–acknowledgment of the importance of regulation:

“Every President from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush has embraced centralized executive oversight of agency regulations. Even critics of OMB acknowledge the legitimacy of a centralized oversight function. Presidents have found regulatory oversight to be necessary and desirable because: (i) the regulatory state is a permanent part of the legal landscape of the United States; (ii) the economic costs of the regulatory state are substantial; (iii) a consensus is needed when executive branch disagreements about regulation arise; and (iv) federal regulations are often necessary to achieve legislative objectives and implement Presidential priorities and policy objectives. Virtually all scholarship on this subject acknowledges the increasing importance of OMB’s role in regulatory policymaking over the past thirty years.”[43]

Although the piece is highly technocratic, promotes science, and gives some amount of attention to so-called unquantified benefits such as a human health and environmental quality, it would be reading too much into this article to suggest that an appreciation of agency expertise will lead Branch to defer to that expertise when the statutory language does not require it. Instead, she will likely seek simply to apply language that she perceives to be unambiguous.

Overall Assessment

Branch’s legal career provides very little insight into how she would operate as an Eleventh Circuit judge faced with a wide range of constitutional questions, as she has not publicly staked out a position on any hot-button legal issue. Her most controversial public acts seem to be joining the NRA and supporting incumbent senator Rick Santorum, holder of a variety of controversial views. Branch’s membership in the Federalist Society is the clearest indication of where her judicial philosophies lie, and her confirmation would likely ensure a conservative en banc Eleventh Circuit for many years to come.


[1] State Bar of Georgia, Hon. Elizabeth Lee Branch, https://www.gabar.org/MemberSearchDetail.cfm?ID=MDc2MDMw (all websites visited Oct. 25, 2017); Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 1, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[2] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[3] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[5] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[6] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[7] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 48, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[10] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 48, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[11] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[12] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, Elizabeth L. Branch, http://www.gaappeals.us/biography/bio_judges.php?jname=elizabeth%20l.%20branch.

[13] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 4-5, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[14] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 4, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[15] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 4, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[16] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 5, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[17] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 6, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[18] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 49, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[19] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 48, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[20] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 49, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[21] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 50, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf; Wood v. Archbold Med. Ctr., Inc., 738 F. Supp. 2d 1298 (M.D. Ga. 2010).

[22] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 22, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[23] Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, http://www.gaappeals.us/.

[24] Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 42, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Branch%20SJQ.pdf.

[25] Shaw v. State, 340 Ga. App. 749, 798 S.E.2d 344 (2017); McLaughlin v. State, 338 Ga. App. 1, 789 S.E.2d 247 (2016).

[26] Watts v. State, 334 Ga. App. 770, 780 S.E.2d 431 (2015); Causey v. State, 334 Ga. App. 170, 778 S.E.2d 800 (2015); Bodiford v. State, 328 Ga. App. 258, 761 S.E.2d 818 (2014); Corey v. State, 320 Ga. App. 350, 739 S.E.2d 790 (2013); State v. Carr, 322 Ga. App. 132, 744 S.E.2d 341 (2013); Williams v. State, 318 Ga. App. 715, 734 S.E.2d 535 (2012).

[27] Arp v. State, 327 Ga. App. 340, 759 S.E.2d 57 (2014).

[28] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 403-04, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016).

[29] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 405, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016).

[30] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 405-09, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016).

[31] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 409-10, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016).

[32] Gary v. State, 338 Ga. App. 403, 410-13, 790 S.E.2d 150 (2016) (Mercier, J., dissenting).

[33] In re Feldhaus, 340 Ga. App. 83, 796 S.E.2d 316 (2017).

[34] In re Feldhaus, 340 Ga. App. 83-85, 796 S.E.2d 316 (2017).

[35] Cook v. Glover, 295 Ga. 495, 495-96, 761 S.E.2d 267 (2014).

[36] Cook v. Glover, 295 Ga. 495, 495-502, 761 S.E.2d 267 (2014); Cook v. Glover, 295 Ga. 495, 502-04, 761 S.E.2d 267 (2014) (Nahmias, J., concurring specially).

[37] See Hartley v. Agnes Scott Coll., 295 Ga. 458, 458-59, 759 S.E.2d 857 (2014).

[38] See Agnes Scott Coll. v. Hartley, 321 Ga. App. 74, 81-86, 741 S.E.2d 199 (2013) (Boggs, J., concurring in the judgment; Miller, J., dissenting).

[39] See Hartley v. Agnes Scott Coll., 295 Ga. 458, 459, 759 S.E.2d 857 (2014).

[40] See Hartley v. Agnes Scott Coll., 295 Ga. 458, 463-64, 759 S.E.2d 857 (2014).

[41] John D. Graham, Paul R. Noe & Elizabeth L. Branch, Managing the Regulatory State: The Experience of the Bush Administration, 33 Fordham Urb. L.J. 953 (2006).

[42] See generally Daniel H. Cole, Law, Politics, and Cost-Benefit Analysis, 64 Ala. L. Rev. 55 (2012).

[43] John D. Graham, Paul R. Noe & Elizabeth L. Branch, Managing the Regulatory State: The Experience of the Bush Administration, 33 Fordham Urb. L.J. 953, 955-56 (2006) (footnotes omitted).

Kevin C. Newsom – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Kevin Newsom, President Trump’s first nominee to the Eleventh Circuit, is a seasoned appellate litigator, seemingly universally respected, with extensive experience in diverse areas of law.  A longtime member of the Federalist Society, his confirmation would cement the somewhat evenly balanced Eleventh Circuit back onto a firm conservative footing.

Background

Kevin Christopher Newsom, born in 1972,[1] graduated first in his class from Samford University in 1994 before moving on Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1997 and served on the Harvard Law Review.[2]  After law school, Newsom clerked for prominent conservative Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain on the Ninth Circuit (1997-98).  Clerking for O’Scannlain, a “feeder judge” for the Supreme Court, led Newsom to a clerkship with Justice David Souter (2000-01).[3]  Newsom described working for Justice Souter—who is not known for his conservative views—as a “dream job,” and characterized his former boss as “blindingly brilliant.”[4]

After clerking for Justice Souter, Newsom stayed in DC doing appellate litigation for Covington & Burlington.  He chose Covington & Burlington because he wanted to become a law professor and had heard that the firm had “a strong reputation for sending its alumni into the teaching field.”[5]  But he became entranced with appellate law and after two years left the firm to take a position as Alabama’s Solicitor General in 2003.[6]  The man who hired him? Then-Alabama Attorney General—now Eleventh Circuit judge—William Pryor.[7]

In 2007, Newsom left the SG gig for Bradley Arant, where he remains as a partner today.[8]  Since his start at Bradley Arant, he has at various times served as an adjunct professor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law, Vanderbilt University Law School, and the Georgetown University Law Center.[9]

Newsom has been a member of the Federalist Society since 1999.[10]  He was President of the Birmingham Lawyers Chapter from 2012-2015, and since 2007 he has regularly presented at Society events and has been a member of the Executive Committee of the Society’s Federalism and Separation of Powers Practice Group.[11]  His fellow members on that committee include conservative legal luminaries such as Paul Clement, Greg Katsas, Eleventh Circuit Judge William Pryor, and fellow Trump nominee for the Eighth Circuit and current Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras.[12]  Newsom has also been a member of the American Law Institute since 2006.[13]  Since 2011, he has served on the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Advisory Committee on Appellate Rules.[14]

 History of the Seat

The seat Newsom was tapped for has been open since the retirement of Judge Joel Dubina in 2013.[15]  Dubina, the father of Alabama Republican Representative Martha Roby, left the Circuit at a time of significant turnover, with four seats out of twelve open on the court.  While the Obama Administration appointed three judges to the Circuit, somewhat moderating its conservative tilt, Alabama Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions were unable to come to an agreement with the Obama Administration over a nominee for the Dubina vacancy.[16]

More than two years after the vacancy opened, Obama nominated Judge Abdul Kallon to fill the vacancy.[17]  While Kallon, a former Bradley Arant partner himself, had been confirmed as a federal district judge with Shelby and Sessions’s support, they refused to return blue slips for his elevation.[18]  With no blue slips, the Judiciary Committee took no action on Kallon’s nomination, and the seat was left unfilled during the Obama Administration.

Legal Career

As the Solicitor General for Alabama, Newsom argued many cases and participated in a number of filings before the U.S. Supreme Court.[19]  He was the counsel of record in an amicus filing on behalf of 25 states in a case challenging a three-drug lethal-injection protocol, Hill v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 573 (2006).  Hill had brought his claim under § 1983, but the Eleventh Circuit held that his § 1983 claim was the functional equivalent of a habeas petition, and because Hill had previously sought federal habeas relief, his new claim was barred as successive under 28 U.S.C. § 2244.[20]  In his amicus brief for the various States, Newsom endorsed this view and further made the case that “[e]leventh-hour litigation like Hill’s fatally frustrates” the States’ “ability to carry out duly-adjudicated death sentences in a timely manner.”[21]  Permitting “all manner of execution-related challenges to proceed via §1983,” Newsom contended, would come “at the cost of the finality interests that the federal habeas corpus statute is designed to protect.”[22]  To illustrate his concerns, Newsom related the story of former Alabama prisoner David Lee Nelson, who—as told by Newsom—manipulated the Supreme Court into granting him continued litigation on his claims.[23]  Newsom argued Alabama’s position in Nelson’s appeal,[24] and in Newsom’s view, permitting Hill to challenge the execution protocol under § 1983 would compound the supposed flaw in the Supreme Court’s treatment of Nelson.[25]

In its opinion, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Eleventh Circuit.[26]  Although the Court stated that “the State and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence” and that “courts should not tolerate abusive litigation tactics,” the Court unanimously rejected Newsom’s arguments, as well as those by the respondents and the federal government (as amicus), as inconsistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the court’s precedent.[27]  In Hill’s case, Newsom’s fear about further protracted litigation did not come to fruition.   The Supreme Court’s reversing opinion—in which it noted that it was not ruling on the “equities and the merits of Hill’s underlying action”—was handed down on June 12, 2006.[28]  Three months later, on September 20, 2006—following several more opinions from the district court and Eleventh Circuit[29]—Hill was executed.[30]

Newsom, again as Alabama’s SG, also defended against a constitutional challenge to Alabama’s statutory ban on the distribution of sex toys.[31]  (Disclosure: The ACLU, for whom I work, was opposing counsel in the case.) The Eleventh Circuit, in several opinions (the Williams cases), addressed the question whether the ban could survive Supreme Court precedent—including, ultimately, Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003)—holding that it did.[32]  Newsom’s position, accepted by the court, was—in the court’s words—that “public morality remains a legitimate rational basis for the challenged legislation even after Lawrence.”[33]  A decade later, however, the Eleventh Circuit has granted rehearing en banc in another case on the question whether one of the Williams cases is still good law and whether a Georgia municipality’s ban on the sale of sex toys is constitutional.[34]  Although the specific Williams case in question is not the one in which Newsom was counsel, the broader constitutional inquiry that the court will address directly implicates the case in which he was involved as well.[35]  Oral argument in that case will be held on June 6, 2017.[36]

Finally, Newsom also argued for Alabama in a case concerning preclearance under the Voting Rights Act, Riley v. Kennedy, 553 U.S. 406 (2008).  There, Alabama—a “covered” jurisdiction under the VRA, meaning it must obtain “preclearance” from the U.S. DOJ before changing voting procedures—sought to reinstate a prior voting practice following the Alabama Supreme Court’s conclusion that a newer practice was unconstitutional.[37]  Newsom successfully contended that Alabama’s return to its prior practice did not qualify as a change requiring preclearance—Justice Ginsburg wrote the 7-2 opinion in Alabama’s favor.[38]  Justice Stevens, along with Newsom’s former boss, Justice Souter, dissented.[39]

Writings

Newsom has received some scholarly attention for an article he published in the Yale Law Journal while working as an associate at Covington & Burling: “Setting Incorporationism Straight: A Reinterpretation of the Slaughter-House Cases.”[40]  In that article, which he developed while serving as a research assistant on Professor Laurence Tribe’s constitutional law treatise,[41] Newsom takes on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause, arguing that the conventional scholarly interpretation of the Slaughter-House Cases is mistaken.  While many commentators believe the Clause incorporates most or all of the protections of the Bill of Rights against the states and that the Slaughter-House Cases were therefore wrongly decided, Newsom agrees with former and disagrees with the latter, instead arguing that the Cases are consistent with an incorporationist interpretation of the Clause.

In reaching this conclusion, Newsom offers his views on the doctrine of substantive due process, stating that his interpretation “would permit courts to lay aside the historically confused and semantically untenable doctrine of ‘substantive due process,’ a doctrine that has for years visited suspicion and disrepute on the judiciary’s attempt to protect even textually specified constitutional freedoms, such as those set out in the Bill of Rights, against state interference.”  Although he states that his primary concern about what his interpretation of Slaughter-House means for substantive-due-process doctrine is the protection of “substantive Bill of Rights freedoms” (such as the freedom of speech), purportedly leaving “for another day” what his reinterpretation means for the “more controversial branch of substantive due process”—“the protection of unenumerated rights against state interference”—he nevertheless makes plain those views as well: (1) substantive due process is inconsistent with the constitutional text; (2) it is inconsistent with the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment; (3) because of those reasons, reliance on the doctrine undermines the integrity of the Supreme Court and the “institution of judicial review”; and (4) the doctrine can be traced to the Dred Scott decision and therefore suffers a “pedigree” problem.  On this latter point, Newsom offers his advice to judges: “courts invoking substantive due process—the idea of grounding protection for a substantive right in what is, by all accounts, a purely procedural provision—would do well to remember that all roads lead first to Roe, then on to Lochner, and ultimately to Dred Scott.”  Presumably, this statement is intended to suggest that all three decisions—not simply Dred Scott and Lochner, but also Roe—were wrongly decided.

Newsom’s views on substantive due process put him at odds with current Supreme Court caselaw—which obviously recognizes the existence of substantive-due-process doctrine—but it does not place him out of the conservative mainstream, which has long challenged Roe in particular and substantive due process more generally.  Notably, his potential future colleague on the Eleventh Circuit—should Newsom be confirmed—is Judge William Pryor, who called Roe the “worst abomination in the history of constitutional law.”[42]  (Judge Pryor was initially filibustered by Senate Democrats and was installed as a circuit-court judge by President George W. Bush through a recess appointment.[43])  Newson’s apparent wholesale rejection of substantive due process is also shared by at least one member of the current U.S. Supreme Court—Justice Clarence Thomas.  Justice Thomas was confirmed in 1991 by a narrow margin and in a confirmation environment that was much more forgiving than today’s.  Given the change in environment and Justice Thomas’s willingness to overturn otherwise settled law in a variety of areas “in an appropriate case”[44]—including in the area of substantive due process[45]—it is not clear that he could be reconfirmed today.  What this means with someone of Newsom’s specific views on substantive due process is unclear, but given that Newsom is not being nominated for the Supreme Court but for the Eleventh Circuit, he would not be in a position—for the moment, at least—to overturn Supreme Court caselaw in that or in any other area.  At most, he will be in a position to narrowly interpret or distinguish such cases.  This is true of any other judge on the court, but it is not insignificant, particularly given his assertion that “courts invoking substantive due process … would do well to remember that all roads lead first to Roe….”  This advice was not directed solely at the Supreme Court but rather courts, plural—presumably including the court to which he has been nominated.  The statement seems to suggest that all courts should consider the putative illegitimacy of Roe when addressing claims involving the doctrine of substantive due process.

Such a statement is at odds with Supreme Court precedent, which not only reaffirmed Roe in 1992 (Casey[46]) but relied on it as recently as 2016 (Whole Woman’s Health[47]).  Perhaps this interpretation of Newsom’s writing accurately reflects his views as a recent law school graduate, but there does not appear to be any publicly available indication that he would in bad faith resist the application of Supreme Court caselaw with which he disagrees.  When I asked former Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman for his own view on Newsom’s nomination, he replied, “[h]e is a great pick and extremely qualified.”

Overall Assessment

On paper, Kevin Newsom is an eminently qualified nominee for the Eleventh Circuit. His views on substantive due process, however, while not out of step in the community of conservative legal superstars through which he moves, are inconsistent with current caselaw, and his apparent views on Roe in particular could draw significant concern from some quarters. Nevertheless, I believe that Newsom is a highly qualified pick for the President.


[1] Kevin Newsom, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 1, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Newsom%20SJQ.pdf.

[9] Kevin Newsom, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 2, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Newsom%20SJQ.pdf.

[10] Kevin Newsom, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 6, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Newsom%20SJQ.pdf.

[11] Id.

[13] Kevin Newsom, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 6, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Newsom%20SJQ.pdf.

[14] Kevin Newsom, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 4, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Newsom%20SJQ.pdf.

[15] Dottie Perry, Exodus from 11th Circuit Presents a Ripe Opportunity…That Will Likely Rot, The Legal Examiner Mobile, Aug. 26, 2013, http://mobile.legalexaminer.com/miscellaneous/exodus-from-11th-circuit-presents-a-ripe-opportunity-that-will-likely-rot/.

[16] Mary Troyan, Shelby Blames White House for Lack of Judges, Montgomery Adviser, Sept. 21, 2015, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/news/2015/09/22/shelby-blames-white-house-lack-judges/72604440/.

[17] Mary Troyan, Obama Appoints Judge Abdul Kallon to 11th Circuit, Montgomery Adviser, Feb. 11, 2016, http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/2016/02/11/obama-appoints-judge-abdul-kallon-11th-circuit/80253358/.

[18] Id.

[19] Kevin Newsom, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees at 26-28, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Newsom%20SJQ.pdf.

[20] Hill v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 573, 576 (2006).

[24] See Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637 (2004).

[26] Hill v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 573 (2006).

[27] Id. at 582-83.

[28] Id. at 585.

[29] Hill v. McDonough, 462 F.3d 1313 (11th Cir. 2006); Hill v. McDonough, No. 4:06-CV-032-SPM, 2006 WL 2556938 (N.D. Fla. Sept. 1, 2006); Hill v. McDonough, No. 4:06-CV-032-SPM, 2006 WL 2598002 (N.D. Fla. Sept. 11, 2006); Hill v. McDonough, 464 F.3d 1256 (11th Cir. 2006); see also Hill v. McDonough, 548 U.S. 940 (2006).

[30] Florida prisoner executed after court rejects cruelty claim, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/sep/21/usa.edpilkington.

[31] Williams v. Morgan, 478 F.3d 1316 (11th Cir. 2007).

[32] See id. at 1318-19; see also Williams v. Attorney Gen. of Ala., 378 F.3d 1232 (11th Cir. 2004).

[33] Williams v. Morgan, 478 F.3d 1316, 1318 (11th Cir. 2007).

[35] See id.

[36] Id.

[37] See Riley v. Kennedy, 553 U.S. 406, 411-12 (2008).

[38] Id. at 411, 421-22.

[39] Id. at 429.

[40] Kevin Christopher Newsom, Setting Incorporationism Straight: A Reinterpretation of the Slaughter-House Cases, 109 Yale L.J. 643 (2000).

[41] Bryan H. Wildenthal, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slaughter-House Cases: An Essay in Constitutional-Historical Revisionism, 23 T. Jefferson L. Rev. 241, 244 n.11 (2001).

[44] E.g., Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13, 28 (2005) (Thomas, J., concurring).

[45] E.g., McDonald v. City of Chicago, Ill., 561 U.S. 742, 811-13 (2010) (Thomas, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment).

[46] Planned Parenthood of Se. Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[47] Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016).