Judge Jinsook Ohta – 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 seven judges, with the shortfall affecting caseloads and dockets. As such, the Biden Administration’s nomination of San Diego Superior Court Judge Jinsook Ohta likely couldn’t come soon enough.

Background

Jinsook Ohta attended Yale University and New York University Law School before clerking for Judge Barry Moskowitz on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

After her clerkship, Ohta became an Associate with O’Melveny & Myers and then with Sheppard Mullin. In 2011, Ohta became an Assistant Attorney General with the California Attorney General’s Office, staying with the Office until Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed her to the San Diego County Superior Court in 2020. Ohta is currently a judge with the court.

History of the Seat

Ohta has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, to a seat vacated on January 23, 2019, by Judge Barry Moskowitz’s move to senior status.

Upon the recommendation of California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, on October 17, 2019, the Trump Administration nominated Jones Day Partner Shireen Matthews to fill this vacancy. While Matthews was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2020, her nomination was never given a floor vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, leaving the vacancy open to this day.

Legal Experience

Ohta started her career as a clerk for Judge Barry Moskowitz on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. After that role, Ohta moved to the firms of O’Melveny & Myers and Sheppard Mullin.

However, Ohta spent the most significant portion of her career in the Consumer Protection Division of the California Attorney General’s Office. Among the matters she handled there, Ohta was able to negotiate a $90 million judgment against GlaxoSmithKline for deceptive claims made while marketing GSK Diabetes Products. See People v. GlaxoSmithKline, LLC, 2012 Cal. App. LEXIS 1355.

In one of the most notable cases she handled with the office, Ohta secured a $344 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson for deceptive marketing regarding the dangers of mesh vaginal implants. The judgment was the result of a bench trial in front of Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon.

In another notable matter, Ohta secured a $280 million judgment against Dish Network for violating federal and state Do-Not-Call laws. See United States v. Dish Network LLC, 256 F. Supp. 3d 810 (C.D. Ill. 2017). The judgment was largely affirmed by the Seventh Circuit on appeal. United States v. Dish Network LLC, 954 F.3d 970 (7th Cir. 2020).

Jurisprudence

Since 2020, Ohta has served as a judge on the San Diego Superior Court. In this role, Ohta presides over trial court matters in criminal, civil, family, and other state law matters. Ohta’s brief tenure does not reveal enough about her judicial philosophy.

Overall Assessment

There is little in Ohta’s background that is likely to cause controversy. As such, one can expect that she will likely be confirmed comfortably, likely in early 2022.

Judge Linda Lopez – 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 facing a vacancy crisis, currently short seven judges. Having gotten to a slow start, the Biden Administration nominated its first two nominees to the Court a couple of weeks ago, including magistrate judge Linda Lopez.

Background

Linda Lopez was born in Miami and grew up in Hialeah, Florida in a Cuban American family. Lopez worked at small practice firms in Florida during and after high school and attended community college while working full time as a legal secretary and paralegal. Lopez was eventually able to transfer and graduate magna cum laude from Florida International University in 1996. Lopez then received a J.D. from the University of Miami Law School in 1999 and started work as a criminal defense attorney in Miami.

In 2007, Lopez moved to the Federal Defender’s Office for the Southern District of California. Lopez stayed with the office until her appointment in 2018 to become a U.S. Magistrate Judge on the Southern District of California.

History of the Seat

Lopez has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, to a seat vacated on December 31, 2017, by Judge Roger Benitez’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.

On November 21, 2019, the Trump Administration nominated federal prosecutor Adam Braverman to fill this vacancy. However, Braverman never received a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and his nomination was left unconfirmed at the end of the Trump Administration.

Legal Experience

Lopez started her legal career in Miami, practicing criminal defense both at a small firm and as a solo practitioner. She then spent eleven years at the Federal Defenders in San Diego, where she represented indigent defendants before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California and the Ninth Circuit.

Among the cases she handled in Miami, Lopez represented Wilfredo Rodriguez, who was convicted by a jury of a series of drug offenses. See United States v. Rodriguez, 159 F. App’x 900 (11th Cir. 2005). Lopez challenged the sentence on appeal, arguing that the district court erred by admitting co-conspirator statements and prior convictions in the sentencing. While the Eleventh Circuit found the issue to be a “close question” it ultimately found no error and affirmed. Id. at 902.

Among the prominent matters Lopez handled as a Federal Defender, she represented Sergio Caballero, accused of trafficking methamphetamine over the U.S.-Mexico border. Lopez challenged the introduction of evidence found on Caballero’s cellphone under the Fourth Amendment, but Judge Roger Benitez ruled that it was admissible under the border search doctrine. See United States v. Caballero, 178 F. Supp. 3d 1008 (S.D. Cal. 2016).

Jurisprudence

Since 2018, Lopez has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge on the Southern District of California. In this role, Lopez presides over pretrial, trial, grand jury and discovery matters. Among the notable matters she has handled as a magistrate, Lopez was asked to rule over the enforcement of Drug Enforcement Administration subpoenas against the State of California seeking cannabis licenses, license applications, and shipping manifests. The State sought to quash the subpoenas, arguing that the DEA had failed to make the requisite showing of relevance. However, Lopez ruled against the state, ordering California to turn over the relevant records.

Overall Assessment

While several of Biden’s nominees with indigent defense backgrounds have drawn opposition, Lopez is less likely to draw opposition for a few reasons. Firstly, Lopez has experience as a magistrate judge and her record as a judge is fairly mainstream. Furthermore, she has little controversy throughout her career and has a compelling personal story of success. While this does not suggest that Lopez will not draw opposition (even the most uncontroversial nominees in the last year have drawn no votes from a sizable block of senators), it does indicate that Lopez is likely to see a swift and bipartisan confirmation.

R. Shireen Matthews – 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 Democratic picks is Jones Day partner R. Shireen Matthews, who would be the first South Asian judge on the Southern District.

Background

Matthews was born Rebecca Shireen Matthews in Arcadia CA in 1977.  Matthews attended Georgetown University and Duke University School of Law.[1]  Matthews then clerked for Judge Irma Gonzalez on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.[2]

After her clerkship, Matthews became an Associate with Latham & Watkins in San Diego.[3]  2008, she became a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California.[4]  In 2013, she moved to the San Diego office of Jones Day, where she has been a Partner since 2016.

History of the Seat

Matthews has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, to a seat vacated on January 23, 2019, by Judge Barry Moskowitz’s move to senior status.  

In 2018, Matthews applied for and interviewed with selection committees set up by California’s Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.[5]  Matthews was selected as a nominee on March 11, 2019 and was nominated on October 17, 2019.

Legal Experience

Post clerkship, Matthews has held three legal positions, at Latham & Watkins, as a federal prosecutor, and at Jones Day.  Overall, throughout her career, Matthews has tried nine cases to verdict.[6] 

In her initial position at Latham & Watkins, Matthews was largely focused on civil litigation.  For example, Matthews represented Arthur Anderson LLP in defending a non-competition agreement before the California Supreme Court.[7]

At the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Matthews was a trial prosecutor, primarily focused on firearms, narcotics, human trafficking, and immigration cases.  Notably, Matthews prosecuted three defense contractors who stole more than $3 million in medical equipment from Camp Pendleton.[8]  She also prosecuted a trafficker for smuggling three illegal immigrants into the United States by concealing them in a Jet Ski.[9]

At Jones Day, Matthews has worked in both civil litigation and investigations.  Notably, Matthews represented Qualcomm in a breach of contract and trade secret suit against Apple Inc.[10]  Matthews also represented a metal plating company charged with violations of the Clean Water Act for introducing chemical particulates into sewer water.[11]

Overall Assessment

Like three of the other nominees put forward for the Southern District of California, Matthews has a background as a prosecutor (in comparison, only one comes from a defense background).  That being said, Matthews has the support of California’s Democratic senators and has an apolitical background.  As such, she will likely be confirmed with a bipartisan majority to the federal bench.


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

[2] See id.

[3] See id. at 2.

[4] See id. 

[5] Id.

[6] See id. At 14.

[7] Edwards v. Arthur Anderson LLP, 44 Cal. 4th 937 (Cal. 2008).

[8] United States v. Henry Bonilla, et al., 13-cr-0338-CAB (S.D. Cal.).

[9] United States v. Randall Cary Geiger, 08-cr-3681-BTM (S.D. Cal.).

[10] See Qualcomm, Inc. v. Apple, Inc., Case No. 37-2017-41389 (San Diego Super. Ct.).

[11] United States v. Southern California Plating Co., Case No. 15-cr-0946-H (S.D. Cal.).

Adam Braverman – 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 former U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman.

Background

Adam Lorne Braverman was born in Columbus, OH in 1975.  Braverman attended the George Washington University and the George Washington University Law School.[1]  After graduating from law school, Braverman clerked for Judge Ann O’Regan Keary on the D.C. Superior Court, Judge Reggie Walton on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and Judge Consuelo Callahan on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.[2]  In between his clerkships, Braverman spent a year working for William E. Artz, P.C. in Tysons Corner, and three years with Goodwin Proctor LLP in Washington D.C.[3]

In 2008, Braverman moved to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California.[4]  After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Braverman was selected to serve as interim U.S. Attorney while the nomination process proceeded to permanently appoint him to the seat.[5]  However, the Administration and California Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris selected another candidate, Robert Brewer, to be the permanent U.S. Attorney.[6]  Since Brewer’s confirmation, Braverman has served as Associate Deputy Attorney General in Washington D.C.

History of the Seat

Braverman has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, to a seat vacated on December 31, 2017, by Judge Roger Benitez’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 June 2018, Braverman submitted an application for the vacancy with selection committees set up by Feinstein and Harris.[7]   In March 2019, Braverman interviewed with the White House and then again with Feinstein’s office in April 2019 before his nomination on November 21, 2019.

Legal Experience

Braverman has spent almost his entire career, barring clerkships and a few years in private practice, as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California.  As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, Braverman primarily prosecuted drug trafficking, including prosecuting the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, including Chino Antrax.[8]  His record on this matter led to his selection as interim U.S. Attorney, where Braverman made waves on a number of fronts.

Duncan Hunter 

As interim U.S. Attorney, Braverman authorized the indictment of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and his wife for using campaign contributions on personal expenses.[9]  Hunter responded by criticizing the prosecution as motivated by political bias, which many commenters noted was unfounded, pointing to Braverman’s approval of the indictment.[10]  Hunter ultimately plead guilty to one count and was sentenced to 11 months in prison.[11]

Border Crossings and Immigration

In 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on individuals in the U.S. without documentation, ordering criminal charges to be filed against each one.[12]  In seeking to implement the massive increase in caseload that this would bring, Braverman asked the federal court to implement Operation Streamline, a streamlined process for handling immigration violation cases.[13]  Operation Streamline has drawn criticism from civil rights and human rights organizations, as well as from federal judges, for the over-criminalization of migrants and denial of due process.[14]  While other prosecutors have criticized the program as ineffective, some have noted that, as an interim U.S. Attorney, Braverman had no authority to push back against Sessions’ directive.[15]

Drug Prosecutions

Another area where Braverman was called upon to implement Sessions’ priorities was with marijuana enforcement.  Specifically, despite a push to legalize recreational and medical use of marijuana in the states, Sessions ordered U.S. Attorneys to pursue federal marijuana related cases, even in jurisdictions where they were legal under state laws.[16]  For his part, Braverman was generally supportive of Sessions’ policy.[17]  He also laid out a policy of prosecuting drug dealers for the deaths caused by drug overdoses.[18]

Overall Assessment

The fact that Braverman has been nominated means that he has been cleared by the selection committees set out by Feinstein and Harris, and likely has their approval as well.  That being said, Braverman may well attract opposition from the left and the right.  For liberals and civil libertarians, Braverman’s decisions to push aggressively on drug and immigration prosecutions under Sessions’ directive may raise grounds for opposition (although Braverman was generally bound to follow policy dictates from DOJ).  For conservatives, some may blame Braverman for Hunter’s prosecution and for not taking the charges of political bias among his line prosecutors more seriously.  As long as Braverman retains the support of his home-state senators, however, he is still favored to join the federal bench this year.


[1] See Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong., Adam Braverman: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] See id. at 2.

[3] Id.

[4] See id. 

[5] Kristina Davis, Braverman Appointed Interim U.S. Attorney for S.D., San Diego Union Tribune, Nov. 18, 2017.

[6] Kristina Davis, Trump Selects, San Diego Union Tribune, June 21, 2018.

[7] See Braverman, supra n. 1 at 40.

[8] Kristina David, Border Could Be Key In Selection, San Diego Union Tribune, Sept. 18, 2017.

[9] Matt Zapotosky, Dan Lamothe, Rep. Duncan Hunter, Wife Charged With Spending Campaign Money on Personal Expenses, Wash. Post, Aug. 21, 2018.

[10] See, e.g., James Hohmann, Duncan Hunter Embraces the Smash-Mouth Tactics Trump Learned From Roy Cohn, Wash. Post, Aug. 23, 2018.

[11] A.P., Ex-California Rep. Duncan Hunter Gets 11 Months in Prison, KPBS, Mar. 17, 2020, https://www.kpbs.org/news/2020/mar/17/ex-california-rep-duncan-hunter-gets-11-months-pri/.

[12] James Stiven, Mass Criminalization of Migrants is Not Justice, San Diego Union Tribune, June 22, 2018.

[13] See id.

[14] Id.

[15] Astrid Galvan, California, Long a Holdout, Adopts Mass Immigration Hearings, East Bay Times, July 9, 2018.

[16] See Paige Winfield Cunningham, U.S. Crackdown on Pot Seen As Unlikely, Wash. Post, Jan. 9, 2018.

[17] See id.

[18] Kristina Davis, Charging Drug Dealers in Deaths, San Diego Union Tribune, Feb. 18, 2018.

Knut Johnson – 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 Democratic picks is Knut Johnson, one of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in San Diego.

Background

Knut Sveinbjorn Johnson was born in Chicago in 1957.  Johnson grew up in New Mexico and then attended Tulane University.[1]  He then received a J.D. cum laude from the University of San Diego School of Law in 1986.[2]

After law school, Johnson spent two years as an associate at Jenkins & Perry before joining the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc..[3]  In 1994, he moved to McKenna & Cuneo as an Associate before opening his own law practice in 1996.[4]  Johnson maintains that practice to this day.  

History of the Seat

Johnson has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, to a seat vacated on February 6, 2018, by Judge John Houston’s move to senior status.  Johnson applied with selection committees set up by California’s Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris and interviewed with each in 2018.[5]  In February 2019, Johnson interviewed with the White House and was selected as a nominee.  Johnson was nominated on November 2, 2019.

Legal Experience

Johnson has spent virtually his entire career in criminal defense, making a name for himself as one of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in San Diego, including service as the President of the San Diego Criminal Defense Bar Association.  Over the course of his career, Johnson has tried over 70 criminal cases, although he has only tried one civil bench trial.[6] 

Over the course of his career, Johnson has represented clients in some of San Diego’s most colorful cases.  For example, Johnson has represented a military officer who was charged with the beating of an illegal immigrant,[7] the “tattoo bandit” who robbed 22 people in San Diego,[8] the executive of a bidet company that faced charges of alleged false advertising,[9] and an individual who allegedly paid babysitters to bring him children to molest.[10]

Among his more significant cases, Johnson was court appointed to represent Everardo Arturo Paez, an accused Mexican drug kingpin.[11]  He also represented Jason Sullivan, the former social media advisor for Roger Stone.[12]

Political Activity

Throughout his career, Johnson has occasionally made political donations, all to Democrats.[13]  For example, Johnson donated $1625 to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.[14]  Johnson also gave to Rep. Scott Peters and Sen. Kamala Harris.[15] 

Writings

Johnson has occasionally written on the law, generally focused on providing guidance in navigating the criminal justice process.  For example, in 1997, Johnson authored an article on subpoenas.[16]  The article advises criminal defendants on their rights relating to subpoenas and potential issues raised under the Fourth Amendment.[17]  He also authored another article advising solo practitioners on managing their practice.[18]

Overall Assessment

Criminal defense attorneys are vital to the orderly and effective operation of the criminal justice system.  Unfortunately, when put up for judgeships, defense attorneys often face demonization because of the clients they represent.  However, Johnson’s nomination by the Trump Administration should insulate him from the worst of the attacks.  As his background demonstrates both the legal experience and the acumen to be a federal judge, Johnson should be confirmed comfortably.


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

[2] See id.

[3] See id. at 2.

[4] See id. 

[5] Id. at 46-47.

[6] Id. at 32.

[7] Dana Calvo, Civil Rights Indictment Unsealed, A.P. Online, Dec. 20, 1997.

[8] Kelly Wheeler, San Diego’s Alleged ‘Tattoo Bandit’ Goes On Trial, City News Service, Apr. 29, 1998.

[9] Don Bauder, Firm’s Bidet Claims Flush With Falsehoods, Regulators Allege, San Diego Union-Tribune, July 22, 1998.

[10] Kelly Wheeler, Man Who Got Babysitters to Bring Him Children to Molest Gets 45 Years to Life, City News Service, Aug. 5, 2010.

[11] Robert J. Caldwell, An Uncooperative Drug Kingpin and a Curious Plea Bargain, Copley News Service, Oct. 26, 2001.

[12] Kate Sullivan, Roger Stone Says He is ‘Prepared’ for Possibility of Special Counsel Indictment, CNN.com, May 20, 2018.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Knut S. Johnson, Responding to Subpoenas: Constitutional and Practical Issues, 21 Champion 10 (Jan/Feb 1997).

[17] See id.

[18] Knut S. Johnson, Practice Management, on Your Own Solo and Small Firm Practices, 18 GP Solo 22 (Sept. 2001).

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.).