Charles Eskridge – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas

A former Supreme Court clerk and a longtime judge picker in Texas, Charles Eskridge now has any opportunity to join the bench he selected many of the judges for.

Background

Eskridge was born in Cleveland, OH in 1963.  Eskridge graduated from Trinity University in 1985 and received a J.D. summa cum laude from Pepperdine University School of Law in 1990.[1]  After graduating, Eskridge clerked for Judge Charles Clark on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and then for Justice Byron White on the U.S. Supreme Court.[2]  After his Supreme Court clerkship, Eskridge spent three years as a Special Assistant to Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal Arbitrator Howard Holtzmann.[3] 

In 1994, Eskridge joined Susman Godfrey LLP in Houston as an Associate.[4]  He became a Partner in 1997.  In 2015, Eskridge moved to the Houston Office of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP as a Partner, where he currently practices.

History of the Seat

Eskridge has been nominated to fill a vacancy opened by Judge Gray Hampton Miller’s move to senior status on December 9, 2018.  However, he actually applied and interviewed with the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee (FJEC) created by Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz for a previous vacancy created by Judge Melinda Harmon’s move to senior status.[5]  However, upon determining that he could not commute to the judgeship based in Galveston, Eskridge chose not to pursue that nomination, which went to Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown.  Instead, Eskridge was shortlisted for the next Houston-based vacancy that would open.[6]  When Miller announced his move to senior status, Eskridge was recommended to the White House and was nominated on May 13, 2019.

Legal Experience

Eskridge’s career in private practice was primarily at the firm of Susman Godfrey LLP, where he worked closely with Steve Susman, a Democrat and fellow member of the FJEC.[7]  At the firm, Eskridge notably represented death row inmate Anthony Graves in seeking to get the prosecutor who convicted him, Charles J. Sebesta, disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct.[8]  Eskridge’s representation led to Sebesta’s disbarment for hiding evidence of Graves’ innocence.[9]  It also led to Eskridge’s receipt of awards from the Texas Defender Service and the Texas Fair Defense Project.  In another case, Eskridge also represented Caldera, Inc in an antitrust claim against Microsoft.[10]

Since 2015, Eskridge has been a Partner with Quinn Emanuel, where he represented Vantage Deepwater Company, a deepwater driller, in a contract dispute with Petrobras America, Inc. regarding the operation of deepwater drilling rigs.[11]

Political Activity

Eskridge has been very active in the Texas Republican Party for many years, including volunteering for the campaigns of Cornyn, Cruz, and former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.[12]  In addition, Eskridge was a prolific donor to Republicans, giving over $100,000 since 2000.[13]

Furthermore, Eskridge was a member of the FJEC set up by Cornyn and Cruz from 2013 to 2018, during which time the Committee processed and approved over fifteen nominations to Texas federal courts.

Overall Assessment

Going back to his Supreme Court clerkship, his extensive litigation experience, and his impressive academic record, Eskridge has strong qualifications for the federal bench.  As such, few would disagree that Eskridge possesses the base level of intellectual ability to be a federal judge.  Some may even argue that Eskridge is more qualified to serve on the Fifth Circuit than some of the other nominees the Administration has extended to that court.

Eskridge may draw some opposition based on his partisan record, as Eskridge has donated more money than almost every other judicial candidate put forward by the Trump Administration.  As such, some may argue that Eskridge is seeking to “purchase” a judicial seat.  However, such arguments ignore the fact that, even independent of his contributions, Eskridge is one of the most qualified nominees the Administration has put forward.  Furthermore, his legal record is not that of an ideologue, as he has worked closely with Texas Democrats and has litigated in favor of accountability for prosecutors who violate the rights of others.  As such, Eskridge should, notwithstanding his donation records, be considered a consensus nominee.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong., Charles Eskridge, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Among Eskridge’s clerk class, five are already federal judges: Jeffrey Meyer (Blackmun); Jeffrey Sutton (Scalia); Daniel Collins (Scalia); Greg Katsas (Thomas); Greg Maggs (Thomas).

[3] Id. at 2.

[4] See id.

[5] Id. at 48.

[6] Id.

[7] PR Newswire, Steve Susman of Susman Godfrey L.L.P. Speaks to a Group of Local Attorneys About Restoring a Fully Functioning Judiciary (Sept. 12, 2012). 

[8] See Michael Graczyk, Texas Prosecutor of Death-Row Inmate Loses Law License, Associated Press, June 12, 2015.

[9] See id.

[10] Caldera, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp.,  87 F. Supp. 2d 124 (D. Utah 1999).

[11] In re Arbitration Between Vantage Deepwater Co. v. Petrobras America Inc., Case No. 01-15-0004-8503 (International Center for Dispute Resolution).

[12] Id. at 20.

Justice Jeff Brown – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas

Being on a state supreme court is a pretty amazing job.  As the highest authority on state laws, you can essentially shape the jurisprudence of your state’s code.  That Justice Jeff Brown is giving that up for a federal trial court seat speaks to the prestige that comes with a lifetime tenure.

Background

Jeffrey Vincent Brown was born in Dallas on March 27, 1970.  Brown graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1992 and received a J.D. magna cum laude from the University of Houston Law Center in 1995.  After graduating, Brown spent a year as a briefing attorney for the Texas Supreme Court before joining the Houston office of Baker Botts LLP.[1]

In 2001, the 30-year-old Brown was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the 55th District Court.[2]  Brown was elected to a full term in 2002 and again in 2006.[3]  In 2007, Perry promoted Brown to the Fourteenth Court of Appeals based in Houston, to which he won election to in 2008 and 2012.[4]

In 2013, Brown was appointed by Perry to serve out the unexpired term of Justice Nathan Hecht, who was elevated to be Chief Justice.  Brown was elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2018, and currently serves as a Supreme Court Justice.

History of the Seat

Brown has been nominated to fill a vacancy opened by Judge Melinda Harmon’s move to senior status on March 31, 2018.  In April 2018, Brown interviewed with the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee (FJEC) created by Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.[5]  Brown then interviewed with the Senators and the White House before being nominated on March 11, 2019.

Legal Experience

Brown’s career in private practice was a relatively short five year stint at Baker Botts LLP (compared to his 18 year career as a judge).  At the firm, Brown worked a civil trial litigation docket, trying fourteen cases over his five years there.[6]  In particular, Brown represented defendants in a number of trials of personal injury matters, generally relating to automobile injury cases.[7]

Jurisprudence

Brown has been on the state bench since 2001, and on the Texas Supreme Court since 2013.  In the latter role, Brown sits on the highest civil court in the state of Texas and has an opportunity to weigh in on issues of Texas civil law.  

On the Texas Supreme Court, Brown established a conservative record.  For example, in a case involving same sex marriage in Texas, Brown sharply criticized a lawyer for a same sex couple for trying to “cynically manipulating” Texas law in an effort to get his clients a marriage license.[8]  In another case, Brown held for a unanimous Supreme Court that restrictive covenants in title deeds requiring homes to be used for a “residential purpose” could not restrict short-term rentals through AirB&B and similar sites.[9] 

Writings & Speeches

Outside of his judicial rulings, Brown has both spoken and written on the law.

Role of a Judge

In 2007, as a trial court judge, Brown authored an article comparing the judicial philosophies of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who focused on ensuring fundamental fairness and justice, and Justice John Marshall Harlan, who held a more limited and restrained view of a judge’s role.[10]  In the article, Brown endorses Harlan as the ideal judge, criticizing in particular Warren’s rulings in Miranda v. Arizona and in Reynolds v. Sims.[11]

Abortion Speech

In January 2016, Brown addressed the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party regarding the issue of abortion rights in Texas.  Specifically, Brown addressed Texas H.B. 3994, which amended judicial bypass provisions for minor abortions in Texas.[12]  In his speech, he criticized Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights, specifically as they relate to judicial bypass provisions, noting:

“Now, you may be wondering where any of those words [relating to judicial bypasses] appear in the United States Constitution.  They don’t, but…the court at that time, and, to a large extent, still today, finds things in the Constitution that aren’t there.”[13]

He went on to criticize organizations such as Jane’s Due Process, which assist minors in obtaining judicial bypasses, for engaging in “forum shopping.”[14]

Political Activity

Brown has been active in the Texas Republican Party for many years, including volunteering for the campaigns of Cornyn, Abbott, and President George W. Bush.[15]  In addition, Brown was a Republican candidate for judge in each of his campaigns (Texas elects judges on a partisan ballot).

Overall Assessment

Brown has experience on all levels of the Texas court system and looks poised for confirmation to the federal bench.  Given his long tenure as a judge, few can question his legal ability or intelligence.  However, critics may argue that Brown’s criticism of Roe and its progeny, may lead to his disregarding of its dictates.  Given the current majority, it’s unlikely that such questions will block his confirmation.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary 115th Cong., Jeffrey Vincent Brown, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] See id. at 27.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] Id. at 61.

[6] See id. at 51.

[7] See, e.g., Bonnie Allen v. Ed King and Charles King d/b/a Chuck’s Water Well Srv., No. 97-06-02278, 359th Dist. Ct., Montgomery Cnty., Tex. (tried Oct. 1998); Esteban Velasco v. Irene Stern d/b/a Stella Ranch, No. C95-14, Waller Cnty. Ct. of Law No. 1, Waller Cnty., Tex. (tried Oct. 1998); Eldrige Gee v. Galina Bencowitz, No. 95-CV-0447, 56th Dist. Ct., Galveston Cnty., Tex. (tried Jan. 1999). 

[8] See Chuck Lindell, Texas High Court Rejects Bid to Invalidate Early Gay Union, Austin American-Statesman, Apr. 16, 2016.

[9] See Emma Platoff, Texas Supreme Court Sides With Short-Term Renters, Likely Bolstering State’s Fight Against Austin Ordinance, Texas Tribune, May 25, 2018.

[10] Judge Jeff Brown, The Platonic Guardian and the Lawyer’s Judge: Contrasting the Judicial Philosophies of Earl Warren and John M. Harlan, 44 Hous. L. Rev. 253 (Summer 2007).

[11] Id. at 265-276.

[12] See Justice Brown on Recent Abortion Ruling, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsNPbzKcRB0, Jan. 12, 2016 (last visited July 26, 2019).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 48-49.

David Morales – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas

David Morales is Trump’s second hispanic judicial nominee to come before the Senate Judiciary Committee, after fellow S.D. Tex. nominee Fernando Rodriguez.  Unlike Rodriguez, however, who worked primarily in human rights law, Morales was a longtime litigator with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, working closely with Sens. John Cornyn, Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott, among others.  He also served as General Counsel to then-Gov. Rick Perry (now the Secretary of Energy).

Background

David Steven Morales was born in Edinburg, TX (in the Valley near the Mexican border) in 1968.  Morales attended Texas A&M University for a year, but received a B.B.A. from St. Edwards University in Austin.  After graduating, Morales spent a year at a Sales Associate at the Zale Corporation.[1]

In 1994, Morales received his J.D. from St. Mary’s University School of Law and then was hired by Texas Attorney General Dan Morales (a Democrat) as Assistant Attorney General in the General Litigation Division.[2]  Morales was appointed the Associate Deputy Attorney General for Litigation and Chief Ethics Officer by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (now the Republican Governor) in 2004.[3]  Abbott promoted Morales to Deputy Attorney General for Civil Litigation in 2007 and to Deputy First Assistant Attorney General in 2010.[4]

In 2011, Morales joined the Office of Gov. Rick Perry as General Counsel.  In 2014, Morales became Deputy General Counsel for the University of Texas System Board of Regents.  In 2016, Morales left that position to become a Partner in the Austin office of Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP.  He currently serves in that capacity.

History of the Seat

Morales has been nominated to fill the second longest pending judicial vacancy in the country.  This seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas opened on June 1, 2011, when Judge Janis Graham Jack moved to senior status.  The bipartisan Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee twice sent recommendations for nominees to Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, but the two were unable to agree on a nominee with the White House.[5]  As such, no nominee was ever put forward to fill the vacancy during the Obama Administration.

After the election of President Trump, Cruz and Cornyn reset up the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee to take applications for the federal bench.  Morales interviewed with the Committee on March 17, 2017, and with Cornyn and Cruz on April 7.  Morales then interviewed with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice on May 3, 2017, and was finally nominated on April 12, 2018.[6]

Important Cases

While Morales spent four years advising Perry as his General Counsel, and currently practices litigation in private practice, Morales’ most significant cases came during his 17-year long tenure at the Texas Attorney General’s Office, where he was responsible for both trial and appellate litigation involving the Texas government.

At the Texas Attorney General’s office, Morales litigated approximately 150 cases.[7]  Among his most notable cases, Morales successfully defended a challenge to Texas’ lethal injection method for capital punishment before the U.S. District Court, as well as assisting with the defense on appeal.[8]  Morales also negotiated an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in an investigation involving the treatment of persons with developmental disabilities in 12 Texas state schools.[9]

Morales also had an opportunity to work on briefing before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Notably, he helped assist Abbott and Cruz (then the Solicitor General) in defending a monument of the Ten Commandments that was displayed before the Texas Capitol.[10]  The Texas Supreme Court ultimately upheld the monument while striking down a similar display in Kentucky.[11]

Writings

In 2016, Morales published a letter to the editor for the Houston Chronicle in response to an editorial criticizing the decision to drop the lawsuit against Trump University.[12]  In the article, Morales described his role in leading the investigation against Trump University, stating that Abbott and political superiors had no role in directing or ending the inquiry.[13]  Rather, Morales stated that he decided to end the inquiry himself after Trump University agreed to permanently suspend Texas operations, noting:

“[The agreement] ensured that no further Texas citizens would be exposed to the company,”[14]

Morales also stated that his office had no written complaints from those who had used Trump University’s services, while also noting:

“I am proud that our Consumer Protection Division was able to get Trump University to immediately and permanently leave the State of Texas.”[15]

Morales’ letter sparked a letter in opposition from Houstonian John Fisch who noted that Trump University was given no sanctions for their deceptive conduct, stating:

“[Dropping the investigation] is akin to allowing a burglar to leave with the money and goods it took from a home, as long as he agrees not to break into the same house again.”[16]

Political Activity

Morales has a limited history of political activity.  He volunteered on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 and worked in then-Gov. Rick Perry’s Presidential Campaign in 2012, volunteering to assist with the Iowa caucuses.[17]

Overall Assessment

With over twenty years of litigation experience, Morales is clearly qualified for a seat on the federal bench.  While he has spent much of his career defending conservative statutes, the positions Morales took on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office cannot necessarily be considered predictive of his own approach on the bench.

Morales may draw questions, however, regarding his dropping of the investigation against Trump University.  Given his acknowledgment that he himself made the decision, Morales will likely be questioned on his motivation and reasoning.  Given the Republican majority and his otherwise noncontroversial record, however, Morales is still a favorite to be confirmed.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary 115th Cong., David S. Morales, Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 3.

[2] See id. at 2.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] Krista M. Torralva, 26 Apply for Federal Judge Post in Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, March 1, 2017,  https://www.caller.com/story/news/local/2017/03/01/26-apply-federal-judge-post-corpus-christi/98580400/.  

[6] See Morales, supra n. 1 at 26.

[7] See id. at 14.

[8] See Raby v. Livingston, 600 F.3d 552 (5th Cir. 2010).

[9] See United States of America v. State of Texas, No. 009-CV-00790 (W.D. Tex.).

[10] Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005).

[11] McCreary Cnty. v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844 (2005).

[12] David Morales, Saturday Letters; Trump U. and Texas, Houston Chronicle, June 3, 2016, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/letters/article/Saturday-letters-Trump-U-and-Texas-7961669.php.  

[13] See id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] John Fisch, Curious Actions, Houston Chronicle, June 20, 2016, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/letters/article/Trump-U-and-Texas-8000753.php.  

[17] See Morales, supra n. 1 at 11.

Fernando Rodriguez Jr. – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas

Compared to the backgrounds of most Trump nominees, Fernando Rodriguez is particularly unique.[1]  First, Rodriguez is the first and, thus far, only hispanic nominee to the federal bench from the Trump Administration.  Second, Rodriguez has an unusual background for a judicial nominee, having spent much of his career in trainings and advocacy fighting human trafficking.

Background

Fernando Rodriguez Jr. was born in Harlingen, TX, a small town near the Mexican border, in 1969.  Rodriguez received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Yale University in 1991.  After graduating, Rodriguez joined Teach for America, teaching at an inner city Houston elementary school, Scarborough Elementary, for three years.

In 1994, Rodriguez joined the University of Texas at Austin Law School, earning his J.D. with honors in 1997.  After graduating, Rodriguez was hired by Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, a Republican, to be his briefing attorney.  After a year there, Rodriguez joined the Dallas Office of Baker Botts LLP. as an associate.  He became a partner there in 2006.

In 2010, Rodriguez joined the International Justice Mission, a Christian non-profit focused on law enforcement issues (primarily human trafficking).  Specifically, Rodriguez was hired to be the Field Office Director in Bolivia.  In 2013, Rodriguez became the Field Office Director in the Dominican Republic.  He currently serves in that capacity.

History of the Seat

Rodriguez has been nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.  This seat opened on May 20, 2014, when Judge Gregg Costa was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.[2]  While Obama and Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz reached a deal to confirm three nominees to the Southern District, Costa’s seat was not among them and was never filled.[3]

After the election of President Trump, Cruz and Cornyn set up a Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee to take applications for the federal bench.  Rodriguez interviewed with the Committee on April 20, 2017, and with Cornyn and Cruz on May 4.  Rodriguez then interviewed with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice on May 30, 2017, and was finally nominated on September 7, 2017.

Legal Experience

Rodriguez began his legal career as a briefing attorney for Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht.  Despite the title, the role involved Rodriguez serving as Hecht’s law clerk.  After that position, Rodriguez has only worked for two employers: Baker Botts; and the International Justice Mission.

While an associate and a partner at Baker Botts, Rodriguez practiced commercial civil litigation, primarily representing corporate clients.  Notably, Rodriguez represented Ternium, a steel supplier, in a federal breach of contract action for failure to pay for a steel shipment.[4]  Rodriguez also successfully defended a Costa Rican partnership against breach of contract and business tort claims arising from funding of a hospital.[5]  Rodriguez also practiced in state court, winning a breach of contract claim involving the payment of taxes in a property sale.[6]

At the International Justice Mission, Rodriguez primarily worked to combat child sex trafficking.  While stationed in Bolivia, Rodriguez worked with law enforcement officials to secure convictions for 26 offenders.[7]  Rodriguez similarly worked to convict 23 offenders in the Dominican Republic.[8]  In these roles, Rodriguez also worked to train law enforcement and the judiciary on trafficking issues.

Political Activity

Rodriguez has a limited history of political activity.  He has only one donation of record: a $500 donation to John McCain’s Presidential Campaign in 2008.[9]  He also served as a volunteer for Judge Catharina Haynes’ re-election campaign in 2006.  Judge Haynes, a Republican, was later appointed to the Fifth Circuit by President George W. Bush.

Overall Assessment

In confirmation politics, as in electoral politics, a sympathetic narrative is the key to success.  In Rodriguez’s case, he has it in spades.  Not only is he the first hispanic judge nominated by President Trump, but he has devoted his career to a worthy cause: helping child escape human trafficking and sexual slavery.  His work on human trafficking issues along with his experience teaching elementary school in inner-city Houston is fairly unusual in a federal judicial nominee.  Furthermore, Rodriguez does not have a history of overly partisan advocacy, or of controversial writings.  Nor does he have a dearth of experience, having been an attorney for twenty years.  As such, all signs point to a comfortable nomination for Rodriguez.


[1] Rorie Spill Solberg and Eric N. Walterburg, Trump’s Judicial Nominations Would Put a Lot of White Men on Federal Courts, Wash. Post, Nov. 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/11/28/this-is-how-trump-is-changing-the-federal-courts/?utm_term=.0f24cb9a88ce.

[2] John Council, It’s Unanimous: Gregg Costa to Join Fifth Circuit, Texas Lawyer, May 26, 2014, https://www.law.com/texaslawyer/almID/1202656477944/.  

[3] Kevin Diaz, Texas Candidates for Federal Bench Caught Up in Political Gamesmanship, San Antonio Express-News, January 15, 2015, http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/Texas-candidates-for-federal-bench-caught-up-in-6039505.php.  

[4] See Ternium Int’l USA Corp. v. Consol. Sys. Inc., No. 3:08-cv-00816-G, 2009 WL 464953 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 24, 2009).

[5] See Int’l. Hosp. Corp. et al. v. Grupo Promoter Hosp. San Jose, S.A., et al., No. 3:06-cv-00266-N (N.D. Tex. 2006).

[6] See Hollywood Theatres, Inc. v. J.C. Mitchell, No. 98-11171-A (County Court of Law No. 1, Dallas County, Tex. 1999) (Judge David Gibson).

[7] Fernando Rodriguez Jr., Senate Judiciary Questionnaire 26 (available at https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Rodriguez%20Jr%20SJQ.pdf).

[8] Id.

[9] Center for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/donor-lookup/results?name=fernando+rodriguez&order=desc&page=2&sort=D (last visited Nov. 28, 2017).