Rebecca Grady Jennings – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky

A Louisville based civil litigator, Rebecca Grady Jennings is on track to become the first woman exclusively appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. (Judge Jennifer Coffman was appointed to a joint seat serving both the Western and the Eastern Districts of Kentucky.  However, Coffman was a Lexington attorney in the Eastern District prior to her appointment).  While Jennings is very young (not even 40), she is unlikely to draw significant opposition due to her mainstream background.

Background

Jennings was born Rebecca Christine Grady in Wilmington, DE in 1978.  Jennings attended Emory University, along with a stint studying abroad at Oxford, graduating in 1999.  Upon graduation, Jennings attended American University Washington College of Law, graduating in 2002.

Jennings then clerked for Judge William Haynes on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. After her clerkship, Jennings joined the Louisville Kentucky office of Middleton Reutlinger PSC as an Associate.  Jennings was elevated to be a Director in 2009, and has served as Chair of the Litigation Department since 2014.

History of the Seat

Jennings has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.  This seat opened on April 1, 2014, when Judge John G. Heyburn moved to senior status.  While the seat opened in President Obama’s second term, the Obama Administration and Kentucky Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul were unable to reach an agreement on a nominee to fill the vacancy.  As such, no nomination was put forward by the Obama Administration.

Jennings received a call from Paul’s office indicating her consideration for a federal judgeship in April 2017.  After interviews with Paul and McConnell, Jennings’ name was recommended to the White House.  Jennings interviewed with the White House and the Department of Justice in May, and her nomination was officially put forward on September 7, 2017.

Political Activity

While Jennings has never held public office, she has donated occasionally to Republicans.[1]  Among her donations, Jennings gave $1000 to the senatorial campaign of Trey Grayson, $1000 to McConnell, and $1000 to the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Legal Experience

After her clerkship on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Jennings has spent the rest of her legal career at the same firm: the Louisville law firm Middleton Reutlinger, serving first as a litigation associate, then as a partner, and finally as head of the litigation division.  In this role, Jennings mainly focuses on complex commercial litigation, including contract claims, professional malpractice, and intellectual property.  Jennings also maintains an employment law portfolio, primarily defending employers against discrimination claims, but also working on compliance matters.

In one of her more prominent cases, Jennings represented Republican Dana Seum Stephenson, who had been elected to the Kentucky State Senate in 2004.[2]  Stephenson’s opponent Virginia Woodward challenged Stephenson’s seating, arguing that Stephenson did not meet the Kentucky Constitution’s residency requirements.  Jennings was part of the legal team representing Stephenson throughout the proceedings, and at the Kentucky Supreme Court, which affirmed a lower court ruling holding that Stephenson was ineligible to serve.[3]

Jennings has also frequently defended school districts against First Amendment and sex discrimination challenges.  She notably defended school programs offering single-sex classes,[4] school dress codes,[5] and school locker room assignment plans.[6]

Overall Assessment

In a hearing expected to be dominated by the testimony of the American Bar Association (ABA), it is unlikely that Jennings will draw much controversy.  Despite her age, Jennings was rated Qualified by the ABA, and has fifteen years of substantive legal experience, significantly more than many of the other young nominees.  Furthermore, Jennings has Paul and McConnell, both influential senators, as her champions.  As such, it is likely that Jennings will be confirmed by the Senate before the end of the year.


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

[2] Stephenson v. Woodward, 182 S.W.3d 162 (Ky. 2005).

[3] See id. 

[4] A.N.A. ex rel. S.F.A. v. Breckenridge Cty. Bd. of Educ., 833 F. Supp. 2d 673, 675 (W.D. Ky 2011).

[5] Blau v. Fort Thomas Pub. Sch. Dist., 401 F.3d 381 (6th Cir. 2005).

[6] Richards et al v. Oldham Cnty. Bd. of Educ. et al., Civil Action No. 3:10-CV-00769 (W.D. Ky) (United States District Judge John G. Heyburn II).

Claria Horn Boom – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky & the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky

Claria Horn Boom has a relatively low profile for a federal judicial candidate.  Unlike other nominees put forward by the Trump Administration, Horn Boom hasn’t written extensively on her judicial philosophy, participated in the conservative legal movement, or built a strong litigation record.  In a confirmation process often marred by controversy, Horn Boom’s lack of a paper trail may serve her well.  However, it makes it difficult for litigants to anticipate the type of judge she will be.

Background

A native Kentuckyian, Horn Boom grew up in a Republican family in a small town in East Kentucky, where her mother served as county clerk for Martin County.[1]  Horn Boom attended Transylvania University in Lexington, graduating summa cum laude in 1991.  Horn Boom then attended Vanderbilt University Law School, graduating in 1994 with the Order of the Coif.  Horn Boom went on to clerk for Judge Pierce Lively on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

In 1995, Horn Boom joined the Atlanta office of King & Spalding, focusing on product liability and tort cases.  In 1998, Horn Boom returned to Kentucky as a federal prosecutor, focusing on the prosecution of financial crimes.  In 2005, Horn Boom became the first executive director of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, which advocates for the horse industry.[2]

In 2006, Horn Boom joined the Lexington office of Frost, Brown, Todd LLC., one of the largest midwestern law firms.  As a partner, Horn Boom focuses on advising businesses and financial institutions on matters, including real estate, regulations and litigation.

History of the Seat

Horn Boom has been nominated to a shared seat for the U.S. District Courts for the Eastern District of Kentucky and the Western District of Kentucky.  This seat opened on January 8, 2013, with the retirement of Clinton appointee Judge Jennifer Coffman.  While Coffman’s retirement was announced in 2012,[3] President Obama never sent a nominee to the Senate for the vacancy.  While the exact reason for the nominee is unclear, it is likely that Obama was unable to agree on a nominee with Kentucky Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.  The Obama Administration did vet Courtney Baxter, a commonwealth’s attorney in Eastern Kentucky, and a Republican, for the vacancy, but ultimately decided against nominating her.[4]

Horn Boom’s name was first floated for the vacancy early in the Trump Presidency.[5]  She was ultimately nominated for the seat on June 7, 2017.

Legal Experience

Horn Boom has spent the majority of her legal career focused on advising and defending corporations and financial institutions.  As an associate at King & Spalding, however, Horn Boom represented General Motors in successfully defending a consent agreement granting the corporation credits against future taxes.[6]  Similarly, as a partner in Lexington, Horn Boom successfully defended Central Bank against a suit alleging violations of the Right to Financial Privacy Act.[7]  Horn Boom also helped implement a “$90 million acquisition of coal terminals and coal mines in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.”[8]

During her time as an AUSA, Horn Boom worked on financial crimes, including the prosecution of Gary Douglas Burks for a kickback scheme involving defense contracts.[9]  Horn Boom also successfully argued that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was not required to recuse itself in a case where the defendant had been represented by the newly appointed U.S. Attorney in his previous capacity.[10]

Political Activity

Horn Boom, who comes from a Republican family,[11] has a record of support for Republican candidates.[12]  Between 2001 and 2016, Horn Boom has donated approximately $4900 to Kentucky Republicans, including $1450 to McConnell and $1000 to Paul.[13]  Horn Boom also retweeted a message in support of Rep. Ryan Zinke’s candidacy for Secretary of the Interior.[14]

Overall Assessment

Unlike almost every other Trump judicial nomination, Horn Boom had a minority of ABA Standing Committee rate her “Not Qualified” for a federal judgeship.[15]  Typically, such ratings reflect either the relative youth of the candidate, lack of relevant experience, or ethical and temperament issues.  As Horn Boom is in her late 40s, and doesn’t seem to have any major ethical issues, it is possible that the low rating is based on Horn Boom’s focus on transactional law rather than litigation in the federal courts.

While Horn Boom has practiced as a federal prosecutor for several years, a search of both Westlaw and LexisNexis yields only a handful of cases where she is the counsel of record.  Furthermore, even her official profile at Frost Brown & Todd suggests that her primary expertise is in transactional law, not litigation.[16]

None of this suggests that Horn Boom is unqualified for the bench, or that she should not be confirmed.  Horn Boom is, by all accounts, an intelligent and non-ideological candidate.  Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the Senate Judiciary Committee to probe Horn Boom’s background and judicial philosophy before voting to confirm.


[1] Andrew Wolfson, Two Women in Line for Federal Bench in Kentucky, Which Now Only Has One Female Judge out of 13, The Courier-Journal, May 9, 2017, http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/2017/05/09/two-women-line-federal-bench-kentucky-which-now-only-has-one-female-judge-out-13/314847001/.

[2] See id.

[3] Jennifer Hewlett, U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman to Retire from the Bench, Lexington Herald Leader, March 7, 2012, http://www.kentucky.com/news/local/crime/article44159211.html.  

[4] See Andrew Wolfson, Baxter Being Vetted for Federal Bench, Clerk Says, The Courier-Journal, April 15, 2014, http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/2014/04/15/baxter-vetted-federal-bench-clerk-says/7755619/.

[5] See Wolfson, supra n. 1.

[6] See Fulton Cnty. Tax. Comm’r. v. General Motors Corp., 507 S.E.2d 772 (Ga. App. 1998).

[7] See Coffman v. Centr. Bank & Trust Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136757 (E.D. Ky., Sept. 25, 2012).

[9] See United States v. Burks, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24481 at *18 n.10 (W.D. Ky. Aug. 10, 2001). See also Former Executive Admits Role in Kickback Scheme, The Courier-Journal, July 1, 2000, https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/110487250/.  

[10] See United States v. Huff, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15480 (W.D. Ky. Aug. 13, 2002).

[11] See Wolfson, supra n. 1.

[13] See id.

[15] See ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, Ratings of Article III and Article IV Judicial Nominees, 115th Cong., https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/uncategorized/GAO/Web%20rating%20Chart%20Trump%20115.authcheckdam.pdf.