TAMPA — U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of Tampa made a nationwide splash Monday with a ruling that struck down the federal mask-wearing requirement for travelers.
The judge’s decision quickly became political fodder, with commentators left and right alternatively dishing criticism and praise.
Social media critics were quick to resurrect the controversy over Mizelle’s 2020 judicial nomination. She was just 33 when appointed as a judge in the Middle District of Florida, which includes the Tampa Bay area. She had eight years of prior experience as a lawyer — judicial nominees typically have more — raising questions about her qualifications for the lifetime appointment.
Legal observers noted the thoroughness of her 59-page opinion -- its sweep and complexity made it as much a subject of interest as the judge herself.
“I’ve seen headlines about how she’s now a heroine of the right, if you will,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, who studies judicial selection. “That may be true, though she may have been a heroine before that. Judicial reputations are built over lifetimes and she’s got a long way to go.”
Here are five things to know about Mizelle and her background.
What’s her educational background?
Mizelle, 35, is from Polk County and graduated in 2005 from Lakeland Christian School. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 2009 from Covenant College, a private liberal arts Christian school in northwest Georgia. Her law degree came in 2012 from the University of Florida. She earned both her bachelor’s and law degrees summa cum laude.
What was her experience before becoming a judge?
While not particularly well-known in Tampa’s legal community before her appointment, her resume bears some highlights. She spent a year as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She also clerked for U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. of 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, working in Virginia and Washington, D.C. She was counsel to the associate attorney general from 2017 to 2018, then clerked for Gregory G. Katsas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit before clerking for Thomas. Prior to her nomination to the federal bench, she was an associate attorney at Jones Day, an international law firm, in Washington, D.C.
What is her judicial philosophy?
Mizelle is a member of the Federalist Society, the influential legal organization that is regarded as advancing a conservative or libertarian view of the law. Members champion the philosophy or originalism, the basic idea of which is to interpret the Constitution the way it would have been understood when it was written. They also advocate a philosophy of textualism, which is a theory that the law should be interpreted according to the plain meaning of its text, rather than on things like legislative intent.
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In January 2020, Mizelle spoke at a Federalist Society convention in Orlando, where Thomas was in attendance. She called him the “greatest living American” and expressed admiration for his commitment to originalism.
What was the controversy over her judicial nomination?
After President Trump nominated Mizelle to the federal bench in 2020, a committee of the American Bar Association sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee opining that she was not qualified. They pointed in particular to the eight years she had practiced law. Typically, federal judicial nominees should have at least 12 years experience, they wrote.
“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.”
The lack of experience became a feature of her Senate confirmation hearing.
Mizelle was confirmed along party lines, with 49 Republicans voting in her favor and 41 Democrats voting against her.
Are there other prominent members of her family?
She is married to Chad Mizelle, a lawyer who served as general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security and in senior positions in the White House during the Trump administration. In January 2021, he joined Jones Day in the firm’s government regulation practice. Last September, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him to the 13th Judicial Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, the panel that selects nominees for judicial appointments in state court in Hillsborough County.