Michelle Pettit – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California is currently short five judges.  The Trump Administration and California’s Democratic senators have settled on a package of five nominees to fill the vacancies.  One of the Republican picks is national security prosecutor Michelle Pettit.

Background

Pettit was born Michelle Elise Montgomery in Fredericksburg, VA in 1972.  Pettit attended the United States Naval Academy, getting a B.S. in 1994.[1]  She then spent five years in the Navy before getting her J.D. from Vanderbilt University Law School in 2001.[2]

After law school, Pettit joined the U.S. Navy Personnel Command as Assistant Legal Counsel.[3]  In 2007, she moved to the U.S. Navy Reserve as Senior Trial Counsel.[4]  In 2017, she became Chief Trial Judge in the Judiciary of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Simultaneously, since 2007, Pettit has been an Assistant United States Attorney based in San Diego.  

History of the Seat

Pettit has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, to a seat vacated on October 31, 2018, by Judge Michael Anello’s move to senior status.  In October 2017, Pettit inquired about district court vacancies with the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice and interviewed with the White House Counsel’s Office.[5]

In 2018, Pettit interviewed with selection committees set up by California’s Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harri.[6]  Pettit was selected as a nominee on September 18, 2019 and was nominated on November 21, 2019.

Legal Experience

Over her legal career, Pettit has primarily served in legal roles in the U.S. Navy and the Naval Reserve, where, among other roles, she provided legal advice on confinement and detention, prosecuted Navy members for violations and crimes, and advised on terminations, ethics, and personnel matters.  Additionally, since 2007, she has worked on national security and cybercrimes issues as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.[7]  Throughout her career, Pettit has tried 25 cases to verdict, including 20 jury trials.[8] 

Among her more prominent cases, Pettit prosecuted five Mexican nationals for the killing of Border Patrol Agent Robert Rosas.[9]

In another matter, Pettit’s name emerged in connection with whether Navy Judge Advocate General James Crawford III had illegally interfered in Navy investigations and prosecutions.[10]  Specifically, Pettit was one of two lawyers emailed by Crawford’s subordinate Donald King, who asked about further prosecutions relating to the death of Navy Seal James Derek Lovelace.[11]  However, there are no allegations of wrongdoing connected with Pettit, who does not seem to have been involved in prosecutions relating to the death.

Judicial Experience

Since 2017, Pettit has been a Judge with the Navy-Marine Corps Trial Judiciary.  In that time, Pettit handled court-martial proceedings, specifically, one bench trial and three guilty pleas.[12]  Pettit has also served as an Appellate Judge with the Navy Reserve, where she reviewed Navy and Marine-Corps court-martial records.

Overall Assessment

In many ways, Pettit’s background is similar to that of fellow Southern District nominee Todd Robinson, who is also a federal prosecutor.  Such a background is fairly “safe” for federal judgeships, and, while she may face a few questions about the Lovelace case, Pettit is strongly favored to be confirmed to the federal bench.


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

[2] See id.

[3] See id. at 2.

[4] See id. 

[5] Id. at 37-38.

[6] Id.

[7] Kristina Davis, Who Are the Five ATtorneys Trump Wants on San Diego’s Federal Bench?, San DIego Union-Tribune, Sept. 20, 2019.

[8] See Pettit, supra n. 1 at 25-26.

[9] Kristina Davis, Last of Border Agent’s Killers Sentenced, San Diego Union-Tribune, Mar. 20, 2014, https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-border-patrol-agent-rosas-gonzales-sentence-2014mar20-story.html.

[10] Carl Prine, Top Navy Lawyer Accused of Interfering in 2 Cases, San Diego Union Tribune, Aug. 3, 2017.

[11] Id.

[12] See Pettit, supra n. 1 at 16.

Todd Robinson – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California is currently short five judges.  The Trump Administration and California’s Democratic senators have settled on a package of five nominees to fill the vacancies.  One of the Republican picks is longtime prosecutor and Federalist Society member Todd Robinson.

Background

Todd Wallace Robinson was born in Jacksonville, FL in 1967.  Robinson attended the University of California, Berkeley, getting his B.A. in 1989.[1]  He then received a J.D. magna cum laude from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1993.[2]

After law school, Robinson joined the U.S. Department of Justice as a trial attorney.[3]  In 1997, he moved to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, where he has stayed since, barring a short stint with the Central Intelligence Agency.[4] 

History of the Seat

Robinson has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, to a seat vacated on September 30, 2016, by Judge Marilyn Huff’s move to senior status.  As the seat opened with around four months left in the Obama Administration, they did not put forward a nomination to fill the seat.

In January 2017, Robinson broached his interest in the vacancy with Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA).[5]  He interviewed with Issa in January 2018 and then with selection committees set up by California’s Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris in late 2018.[6]  In March 2019, Robinson interviewed with the White House and then again with Feinstein’s office in August 2019 before his nomination on November 21, 2019.

Legal Experience

Robinson has spent virtually his entire career as a federal prosecutor, where he has handled a number of high profile immigration, terrorism, and narcotics cases.  Notably, Robinson led the racketeering prosecution against the Mexican Mafia prison gang, using organized crime laws to target gang activity.[7]  Under his leadership, the Office used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which was tailored to target organized crime, against gang and drug crime, indicting over 200 defendants, including members of the Arellano Felix drug cartel and the North Park gang.[8]

In another significant matter, Robinson led the prosecution of three Pakistani nationals who sought to purchase Stinger missiles in an effort to target U.S. aircraft in Afghanistan.[9]

Overall Assessment

Handling a heavy caseload of drugs, guns, immigration, and terrorism cases, Robinson  possesses the familiarity with the criminal half of his likely docket on the Southern District.  While some senators may question Robinson’s comparative lack of experience on the civil side, this should pose little threat to his nomination.  

If confirmed, Robinson’s background is likely to make him a conservative presence on the Southern District, particularly on criminal issues.  As such, he may follow in the mold of Chief Judge Larry Burns, another longtime federal prosecutor.


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

[2] See id.

[3] See id. at 2.

[4] See id. 

[5] See id. at 53.

[6] Id.

[7] Onell R. Soto, 36 Indicted in Mexican Mafia Crackdown, Copley News Service, June 17, 2006.

[8] Kristina Davis, RICO LAW NOT JUST FOR MOBSTERS: Federal Tool Used in North Park Gangs Roundup Last Week, San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 13, 2004.

[9] United States v. Syed Shah, et al., 02CR2012-L (S.D. Cal.).