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.
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.
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.).
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.
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).
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).
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.