The Biden Administration has tapped attorneys from many prominent civil rights organizations for the bench. Eastern District nominee Natasha Merle, who works for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is part of this trend.
Merle attended the University of Texas at Austin, graduating in 2005. Merle then attended New York University Law School, graduating in 2008. She then clerked for Judge Robert Carter on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York before joining the Gulf Region Advocacy Center.
After two years at the Advocacy Center, Center became a federal public defender in the Eastern District of New York and then clerked for Judge John Gleeson on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. She then joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she currently serves as deputy director of litigation.
History of the Seat
Merle has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. This seat opened on February 1, 2021 by statute because Judge Roslynn Mauskopf was designated to the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.
Merle has held a number of legal positions throughout her career, although she has spent the majority of it at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Early in her career, Merle spent a year as a federal public defender, where she worked on appeals. See, e.g., People v. Rowser, 139 A.3d 489 (N.Y. App. Div. 2016).
Merle has been with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund since 2013. Notably, she was part of the legal team representing Duane Bell, a Texas man whose death sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court because of racially prejudiced comments presented by a defense expert during the sentencing phase of his trial. See Buck v. Davis, 137 S. Ct. 759 (2017). In a media statement, Merle noted that the case was about whether a state could execute someone after a sentencing infected with “racial bias.” Feliks Garcia, Supreme Court Slams Texas Man’s ‘Racially Tainted’ Death Sentence, Calls It “Indefensible”; The Jury’s Decision Hinged on Expert Witness Testimony That Claimed That Black People Were Statistically More Prone to Violent Criminal Behavior, The Independent, Oct. 5, 2016.
In additional matters, Merle was part of the legal team suing Alabama over its voter ID law, and argued the case before the Eleventh Circuit. Mallory Moensch, Civil Rights Groups Appeal Alabama Voter ID Ruling, A.P. State & Local, Feb. 22, 2018. See also Greater Birmingham Ministries v. Merrill, 250 F. Supp. 3d 1238 (N.D. Ala. 2017). She also brought suit against Arkansas for vote dilution of black voters in judicial elections. See Frazier v. Kelley, 460 F. Supp. 3d 799 (E.D. Ark. 2020).
In non-voting matters, Merle sued on behalf of black communities in Philadelphia over excessive force used during protests over police brutality in 2020. See Ellie Silverman and Mike Newall, Trump: May Send Officers to Phila.; It Was Among Cities He Named as He Lauded Use of Force Against Oregon Protesters. Kenney Said They Are Not Wanted Here, Philadelphia Daily News, July 21, 2020. She also sued the Alamance County Sheriff for allegedly using excessive force against protesters. See Isaac Groves, Second Lawsuit Charges Sheriff, Police with Suppressing Vote, Times-News, Nov. 9, 2020.
Statements and Writings
In her role at the NAACP LDF, Merle has frequently written and commented on the law, particularly in relation to pending litigation. For example, Merle noted, in connection with a lawsuit against President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission, that “[a]llegations of voter fraud have historically been used to target minority voters and deprive them full access to the franchise.” See Press Release, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, LDF, Local Alabama Organization File Federal Lawsuit Challenging President’s ‘Election Integrity’ Commission, Targeted News Service, July 18, 2017.
Additionally, Merle has also submitted letters to government officials, for example, sending a letter to the Texas Secretary of State asking for additional efforts to accommodate voting for those internally displaced by Hurricane Harvey. See Sam Levine, Civil Rights Group Threatens Texas If It Doesn’t Protect Voting Rights of Hurricane Victims, Huffington Post, Oct. 13, 2017.
Like many of her colleagues tapped for the bench and executive positions, Merle is likely to see strong opposition. Nonetheless, given Democrats’ relative discipline on judicial nominations, Merle is still favored to join the bench by the summer.