John Heil – Nominee to the Eastern, Northern, and Western Districts of Oklahoma

The Federal Courthouse in Lawton, Oklahoma

John O’Connor, a Tulsa based civil litigator in his 60s, was presumably considered a safe nominee when he was put forward in 2018 by the Administration.  However, questions were quickly raised about the nomination, including by the American Bar Association, and the nomination was withdrawn.  Now, his law partner John Heil has been nominated to fill the same vacancy.

Background

John Frederick Heil III was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1968.  Heil received a B.A. from Oklahoma State University in 1990 and a J.D. from the University of Tulsa College of Law in 1994.[1]  After graduating, Heil joined Ronald D. Wood & Associates before moving to the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office as a state prosecutor.

In 2000, Heil joined the Tulsa office of Hall Estill Hardwick Gable Golden & Nelson P.C. as a Shareholder.  It is a position he currently holds.

History of the Seat

Heil has been nominated for the only judgeship in the country that traverses three districts: the Eastern, Northern, and Western Districts of Oklahoma.  Judge James Payne, who previously held this seat, moved to senior status on August 1, 2017.  On April 12, 2018, the Administration nominated John O’Connor, another partner at Hall Estill, to fill this vacancy.  However, O’Connor’s appointment took a setback when the ABA rated him unanimously unqualified, citing alleged ethical impropreities in his billing practices.[2]  In response, the White House withdrew O’Connor’s nomination.

Heil himself had been considered during the initial nomination process that produced O’Connor but was not selected.  In June 2019, Heil reinterviewed with Senators James Inhofe and James Lankford, and was recommended to the White House in August 2019.  Heil was ultimately nominated on December 2, 2019.  

Political Activity

Heil has made occasional political donations, giving $1500 to Republican congressional candidate Tim Harris, who was Heil’s former boss at the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office.[3] 

Legal Experience

Other than a short stint as a state prosecutor, Heil has spent his entire career in civil litigation, focusing on business litigation, employment, and intellectual property.  In his career, Heil has tried approximately 35 cases to verdict.[4] 

In his time at the Tulsa District Attorney’s Office, Heil handled drug, traffic, and violent crime cases, including the prosecution of Jared Henderson, a teenager who was charged with causing a fatal car wreck.[5]  He also prosecuted Robert Clark for deliberately running over a woman and killing her after a barroom argument.[6]

In his time in private practice, Heil represented a plaintiff injured after wind barriers were removed in her building, securing $1.2 million in damages for his client.[7]  He also secured $9 million in damages for his client in a contract dispute involving environmental restoration.[8] 

Overall Assessment

When O’Connor was nominated to this seat last year, we predicted a relatively painless confirmation given his age and level of experience.  His subsequent withdrawal reinforces the unpredictable nature of the confirmation process.  Nevertheless, Heil should feel fairly comfortable that, barring an unusual development, he will be on the federal bench in Oklahoma next year.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong., Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees: John Heil 1.

[2] Justin Wingerter, Federal Judge Nominee From Tulsa Has Bar Association Complaints, Was Sued By Client, The Oklahoman, Oct. 1, 2018, https://www.tulsaworld.com/news/federal-judge-nominee-from-tulsa-has-bar-association-complaints-was/article_2406fcb9-137e-5389-a1a8-f939129eebac.html.  

[4] See Heil, supra n. 1 at 14.

[5] See Teen-Ager Pleads Guilty to Causing Fatal Car Wreck, Daily Oklahoman, Nov. 3, 1998.

[6] See Jury Convicts Man Accused of Running Over Woman, A.P. State & Local Wire, May 21, 1999.

[7] Wilson v. University Mansion Ltd. Parntership, d/b/a University Club, et al., Case No. 17-CV-217 (N.D. Okla. 2017).

[8] OHM Remediation Srvs. Corp. v. Earth Tech, Inc., et al., Case No. 99-5029 (D.S.D. 2001).

John O’Connor – Nominee for the Eastern, Northern, and Western Districts of Oklahoma

The Federal Courthouse in Lawton, Oklahoma

John O’Connor, a Tulsa based attorney, is Trump’s latest nominee to fill an Oklahoma-based vacancy.  O’Connor, a civil litigator in his 60s, is unlikely to draw the sustained opposition that two other Oklahoma judicial nominees have received.

Background

A Tulsa native, John Michael O’Connor was born in 1954.  O’Connor received a B.A. from Oklahoma State University in 1977 and a J.D. from the University of Tulsa in 1980.[1]  After graduating, O’Connor joined the Tulsa law firm Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold as an Associate.

In 1983, O’Connor moved to help found the firm Newton, O’Connor, Turner & Ketchum P.C.[2]  He served as President and Board Chair at the firm from 1985 to 1996 and then from 1999 to 2005.

In 2018, O’Connor joined the Tulsa office of Hall Estill as a Shareholder.  It is a position he currently holds.

History of the Seat

O’Connor has been nominated for the only judgeship in the country that traverses three districts: the Eastern, Northern, and Western Districts of Oklahoma.  Judge James Payne, who previously held this seat, moved to senior status on August 1, 2017.  In September, O’Connor reached out to Oklahoma’s U.S. Senators to express his interest in filling Payne’s seat.[3]  After interviews with Senators James Inhofe and James Lankford, O’Connor was recommended to the White House.  O’Connor was ultimately nominated on April 12, 2018.

Political Activity

O’Connor has been fairly active in Oklahoma Republican politics, having served as a State Delegate to the Oklahoma Republican Convention in 2015 and 2016, and having hosted fundraisers for many state and local Republican candidates, including Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak.[4]  O’Connor has also donated to both Oklahoma Senators, giving $500 to Inhofe and $2000 to Lankford[5].  Other politicians O’Connor has supported include former Rep. Jim Bridenstine and Republican Congressional candidate Kevin Hern.[6]

Legal Experience

Whether at Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold, at Newton, O’Connor, Turner & Ketchum P.C., or in his most recent post at Hall Estill, O’Connor has based his career primarily around commercial litigation.  In his thirty seven years in practice, O’Connor has handled 25-35 trials.[7]  Notably, O’Connor was tapped as outside counsel by Insurance Commissioner Doak in a number of cases involving the fraud and mismanagement of insurance companies.[8]

In a notable case, O’Connor represented Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church, as it severed ties with the Presbyterian Church USA and filed suit to hold onto its church properties.[9]  The dispute eventually settled with Kirk of the Hills retaining its property but paying a $1.75 million settlement.[10]  The case prompted reconsideration of Oklahoma’s church property statutes, with some advocates criticizing the suit and corresponding legislation as infringing on the autonomy of churches.[11]

Writings and Advocacy

In 2009, O’Connor testified before the Oklahoma State Legislature’s Adoption Review Task Force in favor of reforms to the adoption of foster children.  Specifically, O’Connor urged the passage of a law allowing parents who adopt a child from the state to return the child to the state’s custody if the child develops violent tendencies or severe mental health problems.[12]  O’Connor noted that, under current law, the state would only take back custody in cases of abuse or neglect, and that the current situation “threatens the health and welfare of siblings [and parents].”[13]

Overall Assessment

Out of the three Trump Oklahoma nominees processed thus far, two have faced significant opposition, while one has faced moderate objections.  Given O’Connor’s age, experience, and relatively uncontroversial record, it is unlikely that he will face the same degree of opposition as his fellow nominees.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees: John O’Connor 1.

[2] See id. at 2.

[3] See id. at 29.

[4] See id. at 19.

[6] See id.

[7] See O’Connor, supra n. 1 at 16.

[8] See, e.g., Oklahoma ex rel. Doak v. AmCare Health Plans of Oklahoma, Inc., No. CJ-2003-5311 (Okla. Dist. Ct. Okla. Cty.); Oklahoma ex rel. Doak v. Park Ave. Prop. and Cas. Ins. Co., No. CJ-2009-11178 (Okla. Dist. Ct. Okla. Cty.); Oklahoma ex rel. Doak v. Imperial Cas. and Indem. Co., No. CJ-2010-2340 (Okla. Dist. Ct. Okla. Cty.).

[9] See Kirk of the Hills Corp. v. Presbyterian Church USA, No. CJ-2006-5063 (Okla. Dist. Ct. Tulsa Cnty.).

[10] See Been et al. v. OK Indus., Inc., 495 F.3d 1217 (10th Cir. 2007).

[11] See id.

[12] See Michael McNutt, Attorney Seeks Legislation to Support Adoptive Parents, The Oklahoman, Nov. 21 2009.

[13] Id. (quoting John O’Connor).