Nancy Abudu – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Nancy Abudu, currently litigating with the Southern Poverty Law Center, has spent her career working on a number of legally and politically salient issues, leaving a long paper trail for opponents to mine.

Background

Born in Alexandria Virginia to an immigrant family from Ghana, Nancy Gbana Abudu graduated from Columbia University in 1996 and from Tulane University Law School in 1999. While in law school, Abudu participated as a student attorney with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. See Leslie Zganjar, Judge Orders Hearing on Possible DEQ Bias, A.P. State & Local Wire, Aug. 31, 1998.

Upon graduation, Abudu joined Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP as an Associate. In 2002, she became staff attorney with the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2005, Abudu joined the American Civil Liberties Union, eventually becoming the Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida.

In 2019, Abudu joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta, where she works as interim director for strategic litigation.

History of the Seat

Abudu has been nominated for a Georgia based seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. This seat opened on September 30, 2021, when Judge Beverly Martin left the court.

Legal Experience

Setting aside brief stints at Skadden Arps and as a staff attorney with the Eleventh Circuit, Abudu has spent virtually her entire legal career as a civil rights attorney, at the ACLU Voting Rights Project, at the ACLU of Florida, and at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

From 2005 to 2013, Abudu worked at the ACLU Voting Rights Center. Among the prominent cases she argued there, Abudu unsuccessfully challenged felon disenfranchisement provisions in Mississippi, see Young v. Hosemann, 598 F.3d 184 (5th Cir. 2010), Arizona, see Harvey v. Brewer, 605 F.3d 1067 (9th Cir. 2010), and in Tennessee. See Johnson v. Bredesen, 624 F.3d 742 (6th Cir. 2010).

From 2013 to 2019, Abudu led the ACLU of Florida as Legal Director (full disclosure, the current Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida, Daniel Tilley, wrote a number of pieces for this blog). Among the matters she handled with the office, Abudu challenged residency restrictions on convicted sex offenders, arguing that they were unconstitutionally restrictive. Doe v. Miami-Dade Cnty., 846 F.3d 1180 (11th Cir. 2017). She also unsuccessfully challenged Palm Beach County’s policy of suspicionless drug testing for applicants to be substitute teachers. See Fridenberg v. Sch. Bd. of Palm Beach Cnty., 911 F.3d 10 (11th Cir. 2018).

In other suits, Abudu challenged Felon reinfranchisement provisions passed by the Florida legislature, arguing that they were discriminatory based on gender. See Jones v. Gov. of Florida, 15 F.4th 1062 (11th Cir. 2021). However, this argument was rejected by the Eleventh Circuit, who found that the suit could only succeed with evidence of intentional discrimination, and such evidence was lacking. See id. at 1065. Abudu also submitted Florida’s felon disenfranchisement policies to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights for review of human rights violations. Press Release, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Democracy Imprisoned (Sept. 25, 2013).

On the First Amendment side, Abudu sued Brevard County to enjoin the County’s policy of refusing to allow atheists or secular humanists to deliver county invocations. See Williamson v. Brevard Cnty., 276 F. Supp. 3d 1260 (M.D. Fla. 2017).

Since 2019, Abudu has worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Among the suits she handled there, Abudu joined the ACLU of Florida in a suit unsuccessfully challenging the denial and delay in hormone therapies to a transgender inmate. Keohane v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr. Sec’y, 952 F.3d 1257 (11th Cir. 2020).

Writings and Speeches

In her role at the ACLU and at the SPLC, Abudu has written and spoken extensively on legal and political issues. For example, Abudu debated conservative Hans Von Spakovsky at a Federalist Society Forum in 2011. See Kent Scheidegger, Felon Voting Podcast, Crime and Consequence, Feb. 3, 2012. Abudu has also spoken out against voter ID laws. See Seth Stern, Officials Block Texas Voter ID Law; Justice Department Rules Requirement Biased, Could Disproportionately Harm Minority Voting, Charleston Daily Mail, Mar. 13, 2012. Some of her writings are summarized below.

School to Prison Pipeline

In 2017, Abudu co-authored a paper with Prof. Ron Miles criticizing the expansion of the School-to-Prison pipeline, or the over-disciplining of juvenile offenses in a manner that increases the likelihood of adult re-offending. See Nancy G. Abudu and Ron E. Miles, Challenging the Status Quo: An Integrated Approach to Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline, 30 St. Thomas L. Rev. 56 (Fall 2017). In the paper, Abudu criticizes “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies and similar mechanisms as drawing on the same fears that underlay school segregation. See id. at 57-58. For example, Abudu notes: “Oftentimes, the unstated goal behind these practices is to prove the fiction that minority children have a predisposition for bad behavior, even though decades of social science research recognizes the role of implicit bias with respect to enforcing school disciplinary policies.” Id. at 58. Abudu also criticizes legal schemes that limit liability for School Resource Officers “SROs” who injure children. Id. at 60. Instead, Abudu advocates for “restorative justice” and an increased focus on civil diversion. Id. at 64-66.

Gerrymandering

In a 2020 paper, Abudu was critical of the use of political gerrymandering to dilute minority votes, describing the practice as one that “cements historical forms of segregation, especially in the areas of housing and education.” Nancy G. Abudu, Following the Blueprint: How a New Generation of Segregationists is Advancing Racial Gerrymandering, 45 Human Rights 20 (2020). Noting the unwillingness of courts to overturn gerrymanders, Abudu argues that the solution can be to “pressure and shame elected officials” into opposing racial gerrymanders. Id. at 23.

Overall Assessment

Throughout her career, Abudu has not hesitated in taking strong positions on the law, even where a court has ultimately disagreed. While her advocacy is likely appreciated by her clients, it is also likely to draw strong opposition from those who oppose the positions she has taken. Republicans may particularly highlight Abudu’s presentation of Florida’s felon disenfranchisement policies to the UN Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the move approves international oversight over American policies. Ultimately, while Abudu is unlikely to get much bipartisan support, she also remains a favorite for confirmation.