Judge Rodney Smith – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida

Judge Rodney Smith was the second African American judicial nominee to be sent forward by the Trump Administration when he was nominated back in May.  Now, as his nomination finally starts moving, Smith is poised to fill a long-pending vacancy on the court.

Background

A native Floridian, Rodney Smith was born in Orlando in 1974.  Smith graduated from Florida A&M University in 1996 and then from Michigan State University School of Law in 1999.[1]

After graduation, Smith joined the Miami-Dade County State’s Attorney’s Office, working as a prosecutor.[2]  In 2003, he moved briefly to the Office of the General Counsel at the United Automobile Insurance Company and then to the firm of McGrain Nosich & Ganz P.A.[3]  He left the firm a year later to join the Law Office of Rebecca W. Ribler as a Senior Trial Attorney.  In 2007, he shifted again to become Senior Assistant City Attorney for the City of Miami Beach.[4]

In 2008, Smith became a County Court Judge, appointed to the position by then-Republican Governor Charlie Crist.  In 2012, Smith was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to be a Circuit Court Judge on the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, where he sits to this day.

History of the Seat

Smith has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.  This seat opened on June 2, 2014, when Judge Robin Rosenbaum was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  On February 26, 2015, Mary Barzee Flores, a former state court judge in Florida, was nominated by President Obama for the vacancy.[5]  However, while Flores had been recommended for the vacancy by the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) formed by Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, Rubio refused to return a blue slip on Flores.[6]  Rubio’s stance was criticized by both Republicans and Democrats who described Flores as an “excellent judge.”[7]  Later, Rubio claimed that Flores had misrepresented her past support for the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations.[8]  With Rubio’s opposition, Flores never got a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and was not confirmed before the end of the Obama Administration.

In October 2017, Smith applied and interviewed with the JNC.  The JNC chose Smith as one of ten finalists to be passed onto the Senators.[9]  After interviews with Rubio and Nelson, Smith interviewed with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice.  Smith was formally nominated on May 8, 2018.

Legal Career

Smith began his legal career as a state prosecutor in Miami-Dade County, where he served as the Chief of the Juvenile Division and worked in the Career Criminal/Robbery Division.[10]  As the former, Smith was able to secure a conviction against a defendant who emotionally and sexually abused his step-daughter, even though the child’s mother testified against her.[11]

From 2003 to 2007, Smith worked in private practice.  While working for Rebecca Ribler, Smith defended a case against a plaintiff who broke her hip slipping and falling while exiting the defendant’s restaurant.[12]

From 2007 to 2008, Smith worked as Senior Assistant City Attorney in Miami Beach, defending the city against litigation while also prosecuting ordinance violations.  During his time at the office, Smith successfully obtained summary judgment against a plaintiff who had been rendered a quadriplegic after diving into the ocean and striking a rock.[13]

Jurisprudence

Smith served as a County Court Judge in Florida from 2008 to 2012 and has served as a Circuit Judge since 2012.  In the former capacity, Smith heard criminal misdemeanor and traffic matters, civil protective orders, and landlord-tenant and small claims litigation.  As a Circuit Judge, Smith handles major felonies and any civil cases with more than $15000 in controversy.

Over his ten year tenure on state court, Smith has heard approximately 700 cases.  Of these, approximately 3% have been reversed by a higher court, a relatively low reversal rate.[14]  Of the cases in which Smith has been reversed, approximately one in five involved a confession of error by the prevailing party.[15]

Overall Assessment

Smith is a relatively uncontroversial choice for the federal bench.  His judicial record is fairly mainstream and he has not made any controversial statements or actions in his career.  Additionally, his record as a lawyer is fairly varied and it is hard to argue that Smith lacks the ability to be a district court judge.  As such, Smith will likely be confirmed with bipartisan support.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., Rodney Smith: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Press Release, Obama White House Archives, President Obama Nominates Two to Serve on the United States District Courts (Feb. 26, 2015).

[6] Jay Weaver, Rubio Holds Up Obama Nominee He Once Backed for Miami Federal Bench, Miami Herald, Feb. 28, 2016, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/article63008137.html.  

[7] See id. (quoting Tom Spencer).

[8] Marc Caputo and Seung Min Kim, Rubio Breaks Silence on Female Judge, Politico, June 9, 2016, https://www.politico.com/story/2016/06/marco-rubio-judge-mary-barzee-flores-224073.  

[9] David Markus, Breaking — JNC Makes the Cut to 10 Finalists for District Judge, Southern District of Florida Blog, Nov. 29, 2017, http://sdfla.blogspot.com/2017/11/breaking-jnc-makes-cut-to-10-finalists.html.

[10] See Smith, supra n. 1 at 46.

[11] State v. Yanes, No. F01-029698, aff’d, 865 So.2d 507 (Fla. 3d DCA 2003).

[12] O’Brien v. GMRI, Inc. d/b/a Bahama Breeze, Case No. 04-23037 CA 20.

[13] Downs v. City of Miami Beach, et al., Case No. 04-08735 CA 15 and Case No. 06-20861 CIV-HUCK/BANDSTRA, aff’d, 13 So.3d 1064 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009).

[14] See Smith, supra n. 1 at 38.

[15] Id. at 37-41.

Roy Altman – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida

A former federal prosecutor, Roy Altman was on the shortlist to be the top federal prosecutor in the Southern District of Florida before getting the nod for a judgeship instead.  Today, at age 36, Altman is the youngest judge Trump has nominated, and the youngest judicial nominee put forward since Judge David Bunning was nominated in 2001.

Background

Roy Kalman Altman was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1982.  Altman received his B.A. cum laude from Columbia University in 2004 and his J.D. from Yale Law School in 2007.[1]  After receiving his J.D., Altman clerked for Judge Stanley Marcus on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

After finishing his clerkship, Altman became a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, staying with the office for six years.[2]  During his last year at the office, Altman served as Deputy Chief of the Special Prosecutions Section of the office.[3]  In 2014, Altman joined the Miami office of Podhurst Orseck, P.A. as a Partner.[4]  He continues to work there to this day.

In 2017, Altman’s name was floated as a candidate to be U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida by the newly elected Trump Administration.[5]  The Administration ultimately ended up nominating Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan to that position.[6]

History of the Seat

Altman has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.  This seat opened when Judge Joan Lenard moved to senior status on July 1, 2017.  In October 2017, Altman interviewed with the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) formed by Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson.  The JNC chose Altman as one of ten finalists to be passed onto the Senators.[7]  After interviews with Rubio and Nelson, Altman Altman was contacted by the Trump Administration in February 2018.[8]  After interviewing with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, Altman was formally nominated on May 8, 2018.

Legal Experience

Altman’s legal career can be divided into two primary segments: working as a federal prosecutor; and being a Partner at Podhurst Orseck.  As a federal prosecutor, Altman handled a wide variety of cases, including drug crimes, white collar crimes, and immigration cases.[9]  During his time at the office, Altman had 22 jury trials (two as sole counsel, and 15 as lead counsel), and argued three appeals before the Eleventh Circuit.[10]  Among his more prominent cases, Altman prosecuted sex-trafficker Damian St. Patrick Baston and obtained a twenty-seven year sentence.[11]  During the trial, Altman’s cross-examination prompted Baston to accuse the attorney of being “an evil dude,” an outburst which did not ultimately help him either in the guilt or sentencing phases.[12]

From December 2014 onwards, Altman has worked as a Partner at Podhurst Orseck, working primarily in aviation disaster litigation.[13]  Notably, Altman represents the families of passengers killed in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, handling a multidistrict litigation before Judge Ketanji Jackson in Washington D.C.[14]

Writings

Over the last few years, Altman has occasionally voiced his opinion on public policy issues, usually advocating for conservative positions.

Border Security

In 2013, Altman authored an op-ed criticizing the recent Ninth Circuit decision in United States v. Cotterman.[15]  The Cotterman decision held that border patrol agents could not conduct a forensic search of a laptop seized at the border without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.[16]  In his op-ed, Altman sharply criticizes the opinion, stating that the reasonable suspicion standard “will severely restrict the ability of federal agents to protect America’s borders.”[17]  He also argues that the opinion is “unworkable” and suggests that the Supreme Court should overturn the opinion (the Supreme Court denied to review the Cotterman decision, which remains good law to this day).

Search Incident to Arrest

In 2014, Altman authored an article advocating for an expansion of the search-incident-to-arrest doctrine (a doctrine that permits warrantless searches of items found on or around an arrestee’s person) to cover cell phones.[18]  In the article, Altman argues that, despite the storage capacity of modern cell phones, that:

“There is likewise little reason to treat cell phones differently because they may contain more “personal” information than a briefcase, suitcase, or address book.”[19]

Altman goes on to argue that criminals frequently use cell phones to “facilitate their illegal enterprises” and as such, they should not be granted protection against searches incident to arrest.[20]

Iran Deal

Altman has also been sharply critical of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal).  In a 2015 editorial, Altman urged Senator Chuck Schumer to fight the deal, stating:

“…wrongdoers must be punished, not rewarded; liars must be checked, not trusted; and terrorists must remain the objects of our enmity and the targets of our aggression, not our partners in negotiations or the subjects of our contrition.”[21]

Altman goes on to argue that the Deal will “embolden our enemies and discourage our allies” and urges Schumer to abandon his leadership ambitions to kill the deal.[22]

Political Activity

Altman has been fairly active as a donor and volunteer for Republican campaigns.  For example, Altman supported the campaigns of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and Sen. Marco Rubio, all Republicans.[23]  Altman has also donated exclusively to Republicans, giving $4750 over the last five years.[24]

Additionally, Altman is also a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, the American Enterprise Institute Enterprise Club, and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.[25]

Overall Assessment

While Altman is undoubtedly an intelligent and talented attorney, his nomination looks likely to draw opposition due to a number of factors.

First, Altman is remarkably young.  As noted above, Altman is only 36 years old, younger than any judicial nominee in the last sixteen years.  While Altman has gained a significant degree of experience in his 36 years, he still falls short of the twelve years of practice requirement the ABA recommends (an admittedly arbitrary cutoff).  Second, Altman has spoken and written in support of conservative legal and policy outcomes.  While Altman’s opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal could be dismissed as a personal view irrelevant to his jurisprudence, his endorsement of broad law enforcement powers to search suspects could draw the ire of civil liberties groups and those rightfully distrustful of granting broad police powers to law enforcement.

Taking together his age, his writings, and his political activism Altman may face a tougher confirmation process than his fellow Southern District nominees.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., Roy Altman: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] See id. at 2.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 1.

[5] David Markus, Candidate List for U.S. Attorney Expands (UPDATED), Southern District of Florida Blog, June 7, 2017, http://sdfla.blogspot.com/2017/06/candidate-list-for-us-attorney-expands.html.  

[6] Jay Weaver, Trump Nominates First Woman Ever to be U.S. Attorney in South Florida, Miami Herald, June 7, 2018, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/article212767819.html.  

[7] David Markus, Breaking — JNC Makes the Cut to 10 Finalists for District Judge, Southern District of Florida Blog, Nov. 29, 2017, http://sdfla.blogspot.com/2017/11/breaking-jnc-makes-cut-to-10-finalists.html.

[8] See Altman, supra n. 1 at 40.

[9] Id. at 20.

[10] Id. at 20, 23-24.

[11] United States v. Baston, No. 13-20914-CR-CMA (S.D. Fla. 2013).

[12] Jay Weaver, Jamaican Man Denies Being Global Pimp in Miami Sex-Trafficking Trial, Miami Herald, June 24, 2014, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article1968022.html.  

[13]See Altman, supra n. 1 at 22.

[14] See Air Crash Over the S. Indian Ocean, No. 16-mc-00184-KBJ (D.D.C. 2016) (Jackson, J.) (pending).

[15] Roy Altman, Judges for Lax Border Security, Wall St. Journal, Apr. 3, 2013, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323296504578397382773377250.  

[16] See United States v. Cotterman, 709 F.3d 952 (9th Cir. 2013) (en banc).

[17] See Altman, supra n. 15.

[18] Roy K. Altman, The Case for Incident-to-Arrest Searches of Cell Phones, 29 Crim. Just. 28 (Spring 2014).

[19] See id.

[20] See id.

[21] Roy K. Altman, Schumer Says the Right Thing on the Iran Deal – Now He Needs to Persuade Eleven More Senators, Nat’l Rev., Aug. 10, 2015, https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/08/charles-schumer-obama-iran-deal-senate-democrats/.

[22] See id.

[23] See Altman, supra n. 1 at 17-18.

[25] See Altman, supra n. 1 at 5-6.

Judge Rudy Ruiz – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida

Rudy Ruiz, a state court judge in South Florida joined the bench at just 33 years old. Today, at age 39, he has been nominated to the federal bench.

Background

Rodolfo Armando Ruiz II was born in Miami in 1979.  Ruiz graduated from Duke University in 2002 and then from the Georgetown University Law Center in 2005.[1]

After graduation, Ruiz clerked for Judge Federico Moreno on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, and then joined the Miami Office of White & Case as an Associate.[2]  In 2009, he moved to the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office.[3]

In 2012, Ruiz became a County Court Judge, appointed to the position by Republican Governor Rick Scott.  In 2015, Ruiz was appointed by Scott to be a Circuit Court Judge on the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, where he sits to this day.

History of the Seat

Ruiz has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.  This seat opened on January 31, 2017, when Judge William Zloch moved to senior status.  In October 2017, Ruiz applied and interviewed with the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) formed by Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson.  The JNC chose Ruiz as one of ten finalists to be passed onto the Senators.[4]  After interviews with Rubio and Nelson, Ruiz was contacted by the Trump Administration in February 2018.[5]  After interviewing with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, Ruiz was formally nominated on May 8, 2018.

Legal Career

Ruiz began his legal career as a law clerk on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.  After he left that position, Ruiz joined the Miami office of White & Case, working in the Corporate Latin America transactional practice group.[6]  While his work at the firm was primarily transactional, his next position at the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office focused on litigation.

As an Assistant County Attorney, Ruiz worked in the Tax & Finance, Torts, & Federal Litigation sections, handling tax, defense of tort claims, and civil rights cases respectively.  During his time at the office, Ruiz tried two cases in Florida state court as associate counsel, while trying six other cases as lead counsel before administrative agencies.[7]

Ruiz’s most prominent cases involved the defense of civil rights claims brought against Miami-Dade County.[8]  In one of the cases, which went to trial, the jury found for the plaintiff, but Ruiz successfully petitioned for a new trial, and defended the grant on appeal.[9]

Jurisprudence

Ruiz served as a County Court Judge in Florida from 2012 to 2015 and has served as a Circuit Judge since 2015.  In the former capacity, Ruiz heard criminal misdemeanor and traffic matters, civil protective orders, and landlord-tenant and small claims litigation.[10]  As a Circuit Judge, Ruiz handles major felonies and any civil cases with more than $15000 in controversy.  Over his six year tenure on state court, Ruiz has heard approximately 300 cases.

Among his more notable decisions, Ruiz vacated a jury award for a plaintiff who had slipped and fallen in the lobby of the defendant’s building,[11] denied a criminal defendant immunity under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law after he had stabbed his colleague,[12] and presided over a plaintiff’s vicarious liability victory in a case where the decedent was electrocuted by a hydraulic conveyor belt boom.[13]

During his tenure as a Circuit Judge, only one case has been overruled by a higher court, a relatively low reversal rate.

Writings

As a law student, Ruiz co-authored an article laying out the law governing Securities Fraud.[14]  The article breaks down the offenses that fall under the Securities Fraud umbrella, including Fraud and Insider Trading, as well as describing common defenses and enforcement mechanisms.[15]

Overall Assessment

While the 39-year-old Ruiz is on the younger end of judicial nominees put forward by the Administration, it is unlikely that Ruiz will attract too much opposition through the confirmation process.  First, Ruiz lacks a paper trail on controversial issues, having avoided op-eds and political activism.  Second, his record on the bench is relatively mainstream, with a low reversal rate.  Third, Ruiz is one of Trump’s few Hispanic nominees, and has a record of supporting minority lawyers, including membership in the Cuban American Bar Association and the Florida Muslim Bar Association.[16]

Furthermore,despite his youth, Ruiz narrowly meets the ABA cutoff of twelve years of legal experience to take the federal bench.  As such, Democrats are likely to keep their powder dry and focus their fire on other nominees.

 


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., Rodolfo Ruiz: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] Id.

[4] David Markus, Breaking — JNC Makes the Cut to 10 Finalists for District Judge, Southern District of Florida Blog, Nov. 29, 2017, http://sdfla.blogspot.com/2017/11/breaking-jnc-makes-cut-to-10-finalists.html.

[5] See Ruiz, supra n. 1 at 40.

[6] Id. at 41.

[7] Id. at 43.

[8] See Rolle v. Miami-Dade Cnty., Case No. 02-219101 CA 01 (25) (Fla. 11th Cir. Ct.), aff’d, 138 So. 3d 457 (Fla. 3d DCA 2014) (per curiam); Isaac v. Miami-Dade Cnty., Case No. 11-22698-CIV-PAS (S.D. Fla. 2011).

[9] See Rolle, supra n. 8.

[10] See Ruiz, supra n. 1 at 17.

[11] Gavers v. Espacio Miami Prop., LLC, Case No. 14-10879 CA 01 (22), 2017 WL 3047581 (Fla. 11th Cir. Ct. June 8, 2017).

[12] State v. Quintana, Case No. F12-23033 (Fla. 11th Cir. Ct. Mar. 2, 2016).

[13] Aldana v. Miami Tile Deliveries Corp., Case No. 15-6122 CA 01 (22) (Fla. 11th Cir. Ct.).

[14] XueMing Jimmy Cheng, Ryan Harrington and Rodolfo Ruiz II, Securities Fraud, 41 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1079 (2004).

[15] See id.

[16] See Ruiz, supra n. 1 at 5-6.