Amid the political rancor that has engulfed the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, a lesser-known federal judicial nominee also has generated controversy.
Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and Lakeland native, is President Donald Trump’s nominee for a vacancy on the Tampa-based U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.
Mizelle, 33, would be among the youngest federal judges in the nation. She has been an attorney for eight years. In her career, she has handled two trials; both occurred when she was a legal intern, before she had graduated from law school.
She touts the support of numerous prominent lawyers and judges, but Mizelle’s short career has raised questions about whether she is experienced enough to be a federal judge.
In September, a committee of the American Bar Association sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee expressing their opinion that Mizelle is not qualified.
“Ms. Mizelle has a very keen intellect, a strong work ethic and an impressive resume,” wrote Randall D. Noel, chairman of the association’s standing committee on the federal judiciary. “She presents as a delightful person, and she has many friends who support her nomination. Her integrity and demeanor are not in question. These attributes, however, simply do not compensate for the short time she has actually practiced law and her lack of meaningful trial experience.”
Despite these concerns, Mizelle is poised for confirmation. This week, the Judiciary Committee’s 12 Republicans voted to send her name to the Senate floor for a final vote. The committee’s 10 Democrats did not vote, a protest against Barrett’s speedy confirmation.
Mizelle did not respond Friday to an email and messages left with her law office.
Perhaps the most impressive item on Mizelle’s resume is the year she spent as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Mizelle also is a member of the Federalist Society, the legal organization generally regarded as advancing a conservative or libertarian view of the law.
In January, she gave a speech at a conference of the Federalist Society’s convention in Orlando. She praised Justice Thomas, who was in attendance, calling him “the greatest living American.”
She expressed admiration for his commitment to originalism, a legal philosophy often touted by conservative scholars and politicians. Their idea is to interpret the constitution the way it would have been understood when it was written.
A native of Polk County, Mizelle went to high school at Lakeland Christian School, graduating in 2005.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in 2009 from Covenant College, a private liberal arts Christian school in northwest Georgia. She earned a law degree in 2012 from the University of Florida College of Law. She was at the top of her class. During law school, she clerked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Orlando and later as a summer associate at the Miami firm of White and Case. She interned for the State Attorney’s Office in Bradford County in 2012.
She clerked for U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. in Tampa, and William H. Pryor Jr. of the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. She became a federal prosecutor in 2014 and worked in Virginia and Washington, D.C. She was a counsel to the associate attorney general from 2017 to 2018. She then clerked for Gregory G. Katsas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and later Justice Thomas.
Since last year, Mizelle has been an associate at Jones Day in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at the UF College of Law.
She lives in Alexandria, Virginia. Her husband is Chad Mizelle, the general counsel for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In her judicial questionnaire, Mizelle wrote that she spoke in June with the White House Counsel’s office about her interest in becoming a judge. Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott later gave their blessing.
When questioned about her qualifications in her Sept. 9 confirmation hearings, Mizelle repeatedly emphasized her time as a federal prosecutor and her litigation in contested court hearings. She noted that she handled a major sex trafficking prosecution in Virginia, and that she’s dealt with complicated financial cases in the U.S. Department of Justice tax division.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., read portions of the letter from the Bar Association committee.
Ordinarily, the letter said, a nominee to the federal bench should have at least 12 years of experience. In lieu of that, substantial trial or courtroom experience or “compensating accomplishments” in law can make a nominee qualified. The committee concluded that Mizelle “presently does not meet the requisite minimum standard of experience necessary to perform the responsibilities required by the high office of a federal trial judge.”
“This is the first time I’ve read one of these in 26 years that finds somebody not qualified, and I’m puzzled by it,” Feinstein said.
“I cannot speculate as to why the ABA wrote that particular rating,” Mizelle said at the hearing. “I can just point to my record.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, made the point that there is nothing in the law requiring a minimum age or years of practice to become a federal judge. He called her “exceptionally qualified.”
“I’ve been in the practice of law for 23 years,” Lee said. “It is unusual that I see an individual who has been out of law school for this period of time who has accumulated this much experience. This is a nominee who has worked really hard.”
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who studies judicial selection, said Mizelle’s clerkships are particularly impressive, but they’re not the same as being a judge.
“Academics, like I am ... would have a lot of respect for what she’s learned, but there’s also value in trying cases and knowing about evidence and the kinds of things district judges do on a daily basis,” Tobias said. “She’s been around it, but she hasn’t done it.”
Despite that, Mizelle has a good chance of being confirmed, Tobias said. A vote probably won’t occur until after the November election.
If confirmed, she will be one of more than 200 federal judges appointed by Trump. All of them have been regarded as conservative, Tobias said. Most significantly, Trump has filled out the federal appellate courts, and he’s had three Supreme Court appointments.
“That’s a real accomplishment he can take credit for,” Tobias said.