Kristi Haskins Johnson – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi

Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed an article on the Clean Water Act to Ms. Johnson.  The author of the article was a different Kristi Johnson.

Kristi Haskins Johnson served as Mississippi Solicitor General for a month before her appointment to the federal bench was announced, marking a remarkable rise for the 38-year old attorney.

Background

Kristi Haskins Johnson received her B.A. from the University of Mississippi in 2003 and her J.D. summa cum laude from the Mississippi College School of Law in 2008.  Johnson clerked for Judge Leslie Southwick on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and for Judge Sharion Aycock on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.

In 2011, Johnson joined Ogletree Deakins as an associate.  She stayed until 2014, when she joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi as a federal prosecutor.  

In February 2020, Johnson was appointed by Attorney General Lynn Fitch to be Mississippi’s first Solicitor General, in which role she currently serves.

History of the Seat

Johnson has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, most likely for the seat that opened on March 23, 2018, when Judge Louis Guirola took senior status.  The current nominee for the Guirola seat, Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Cory Wilson, is being nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Legal Experience

Johnson’s primary litigation experience is in private practice at Ogletree Deakins and at the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a federal prosecutor.  In the former position, Johnson notably argued before the Mississippi Supreme Court on behalf of the Sara Lee Bakery Group, appealing a decision ruling that the Group was required to pay unemployment taxes.[1]  The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled, in an opinion by Justice Josiah Coleman, that Sara Lee’s distributors were not employees and that an administrative decision to the contrary was not supported by substantial evidence.[2]  As such, the Court agreed with Johnson’s position.

As a federal prosecutor, Johnson has prosecuted fraud and financial crimes, among others.  For example, Johnson investigated Jackson State University’s management of grant money, resulting in an $1.17 million settlement.[3]  Johnson also worked with the Securities and Exchange Commission to prosecute a Ponzi scheme that defrauded consumers in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi.[4]

Overall Assessment

Johnson has accomplished much in her fairly brief legal career and is obviously a talented and skilled attorney.  As such, while Johnson may draw some raised eyebrows such to her youth and nine years of practice experience, she is likely to still be confirmed comfortably to the federal bench.


[1] See Earthgrains Bakery Grp., Inc. v. Miss. Dep’t of Empl. Sec., 131 So. 3d 1163 (Miss. 2014).

[2] Id. at 1173.

[3] See Press Release, Office of the U.S. Attorney, Southern District of Missippi, Jackson State University Agrees to Pay $1.17 Million to Settle False Claims Act Allegations, Feb. 1, 2017.

[4] See Litigation Release, Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC Shuts Down $85M Ponzi Scheme and Obtains Asset Freeze, May 2, 2018.

[5] Kristi Johnson, The Mythical Giant: Clean Water Act Section 401 And NonPoint Source Pollution, 29 Envtl. L. 417 (Summer 1999).

[6] See id. at 435.

[7] See id. at 461.

Judge Cory Wilson – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi

Judge Cory Wilson, who currently serves on the Mississippi Court of Appeals has a relatively short jurisprudential record.  However, as a former state representative, Wilson has a larger record of political activity and statements that may be mined during the confirmation process.

Background

Cory Todd Wilson was born on August 8, 1970, in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  After getting a B.A. summa cum laude from the University of Mississippi, Wilson received his J.D. from Yale Law School.[1]  Wilson then clerked for Judge Emmett Ripley Cox on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and then joined the Jackson office of Watkins Ludlam Winter & Stennis P.A.

In 2001, Wilson joined Bradley Arant Rose & White LLP as an associate.  He stayed until 2008, except for a year as a White House Fellow.[2]  In 2008, he joined the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office as Chief of Staff/Deputy Secretary of State.  Wilson also served as Counsel for State Treasurer Lynn Fitch.  

In 2011, Wilson joined Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow, P.A., where he stayed until his election to the Mississippi House of Representatives as a Republican in 2016.  Wilson served in the House until 2019, when he was appointed to the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

History of the Seat

Wilson has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.  This seat opened on March 23, 2018, when Judge Louis Guirola took senior status.  While Wilson broached his interest in the judgeship in mid-2018, his nomination was not sent to the White House until May 2019, after he had been appointed to a seat on the Mississippi Court of Appeals.[3]  Wilson was ultimately nominated in November 2019.

Legal Experience

Before he joined the legislature, Wilson generally practiced civil litigation, albeit with some work with both the Secretary of State and the Treasurer of Mississippi.  Over the course of his career, Wilson has tried three cases to verdict.[4]  Notably, Wilson represented one of the defendants sued for allegedly engaging in a conspiracy to photograph Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife in order to damage his re-election campaign.[5]  Wilson was able to get the case against his client dismissed for failure to state a claim.[6]

Jurisprudence

Wilson has served on the Mississippi Court of Appeals since his appointment in February 2019.  In his time on the bench, Wilson has authored approximately twenty opinions, mostly on matters of criminal law.  For example, Wilson wrote for the Court in finding that the trial judge did not err in trying and convicting a defendant while he was not present, finding that the defendant was trying to willfully avoid trial.[7]  In contrast, in another case, Wilson reversed a conviction for possession of a controlled substance, finding that the indictment was defective.[8]

Political Activity

As noted earlier, Wilson was elected as a Republican to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 2015 and served until his appointment to the Court of Appeals in 2019.  Wilson also previously ran for the state legislature in 2007, albeit unsuccessfully.  During his campaign, Wilson identified himself as a “conservative consensus builder.”[9]  He also attacked his opponent for opposing the record of Gov. Haley Barbour,[10] crime policy,[11] and cuts in dyslexia funding.[12]

In addition to his campaigns, Wilson has extensive involvement with the Mississippi Republican Party, including serving as a volunteer during many Republican campaigns and serving on Republican organizations.[13] 

Speeches and Writings

As both a state representative and as a private citizen, Wilson wrote frequently on the law and policy, generally representing a conservative perspective on both.  Additionally, Wilson also maintains an active Twitter account.[14]  His tweets and his writings have already drawn sharp criticism from liberal groups.[15]  Specifically, Wilson has been criticized for calling for the reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade,[16] and for referring to same-sex marriage as “a pander to liberal interest groups.”[17]

On his Twitter account, Wilson’s tweets are generally innocuous, describing the weather or celebrating major American holidays.  However, some of the tweets touch on more controversial topics.  For example, in a tweet on October 5, 2018, Wilson praises Sen. Susan Collins for supporting the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, praising her for rejecting “ugly tactics employed by the Left.”[18]  Similarly, the day before the 2018 election, Wilson wrote that the election was a choice between “#RepublicanResults, or unhinged Dem #Resistance.”[19]

Overall Assessment

Given Wilson’s public statements attacking his perceived political opponents, it is unsurprising that he has drawn controversy since his nomination and that his name has proceeded relatively slowly through the confirmation process.  That being said, given the Republican majority, Wilson is favored for confirmation.  Nonetheless, Democrats may raise questions as to Wilson’s willingness to consider with an open mind the legal arguments of parties he disagrees with.  If Wilson is able to rebut such concerns, he will likely get a bipartisan confirmation.


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

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] See id. at 87.

[4] Id. at 72.

[5] See Mayfield v. Butler Snow LLP, 341 F. Supp. 3d 664 (S.D. Miss. 2018).

[6] Id.

[7] Morales v. State, 2019 WL 3562031 (Miss. Ct. App. Aug. 6, 2019).

[8] Payne v. State, 2019 WL 2511477 (Miss. Ct. App. June 18, 2019).

[9] See A Time For Choosing, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVYGAn5Ddkw.

[10] See id.

[11] Cory Wilson on Crime, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MvqKGgcVVQ.

[12] Cory Wilson (Unaired), YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDp-wvvs9_A.

[13] See Wilson, supra n. 1 at 68-69.

[14] See Cory Wilson (@CoryWilsonMS), https://twitter.com/CoryWilsonMS.

[15] See, e.g., Alliance for Justice, Report on Cory Wilson (available at https://afj.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Cory-Wilson-Report-Final-1.3.20.pdf).

[16] See Mississippi Right to Life Candidate Questionnaire, available at https://afj.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Wilson-Attachments-p489-493.pdf.

[17] Cory T. Wilson, When Tolerance Is Really ‘Zero Tolerance’, Press-Register, June 1, 2012, available at https://afj.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Wilson-Attachments-p200-201.pdf.