A former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was confirmed Wednesday by the U.S. Senate to serve as a federal district judge in Florida. Kathryn Kimball “Kat” Mizelle, a lawyer at the Jones Day firm, will serve as a judge in the Middle District of Florida, a 35-county zone that includes Flagler County. She will serve in the Tampa division.
The Senate confirmed her in a 49-41 party-line vote that included Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, but not fellow-Republican Rick Scott: he did not vote.
President Donald Trump nominated Mizelle, a 33-year-old native of Lakeland, to the lifetime appointment, making her the youngest federal judge yet to be confirmed on Trump’s watch, and in a confirmation process that has continued at a slightly accelerated pace even though Trump lost the election and a transition is ostensibly under way. Mizelle is the 223rd federal judge confirmed by the Senate in the last four years.
The American Bar Association in September rated Mizelle “not qualified” to be a federal judge.
“The nominee was admitted to practice law in Florida on September 27, 2012,” Randall Noel, chairman of the ABA’s standing committee on the federal judiciary, wrote the Senate committee. “This represents a rather marked departure from the 12 year minimum. A nominee’s limited experience may be offset by the breadth and depth of the nominee’s experience over the course of her or his career. Nominees with fewer than 12 years but with substantial trial or courtroom experience and/or compensating accomplishments in the field of law, can be and have been found qualified by our Committee. Since her admission to the bar Ms. Mizelle has not tried a case, civil or criminal, as lead or co-counsel. Of her four distinguished federal clerkships,” the ABA letter continued, “one clerkship was in the trial court. That year, plus her 10 months at a reputable law firm and approximately three years in government practice translates into 5 years of experience in the trial courts.”
Mizelle in answers to the Senate Judiciary Committee said that she’s tried two cases to verdict, but explained: “In one case, I served as co-lead counsel. In that capacity, I helped select the jury, presented opening statements to the jury, and conducted the direct examinations of half of the State’s witnesses. My co-counsel presented closing arguments and did the direct examinations for the other half of the State’s witnesses. In the other case, I served as associate counsel to the lead counsel. In that capacity, I helped select the jury, helped prepare the State’s central witness for his direct examination, and assisted with the presentation of the State’s exhibits.”
She had not graduated from law school when she tried those two cases, nor was she a licensed attorney, but served as a “certified legal intern” at the State Attorney’s Office, Mizelle said.
The evaluation concluded: “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.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein last week urged the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to put a halt to lame-duck confirmations. “Going back to 1984, the Committee has only twice held a nominations hearing in the lame duck period of a presidential election year — once in 2004, following President George W. Bush’s reelection, and once in 2012, following the reelection of President Obama,” Feinstein wrote Chairman Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican. “Unlike Presidents Bush and Obama,” Feinstein wrote, “President Trump has lost his reelection bid.” On Wednesday, Graham held hearings for five more nominees.
Rubio issued a statement Wednesday praising the confirmation. “By all accounts, Mizelle is an impressive nominee having served in various legal roles both in the public and private sector,” Rubio said. “Notably, she has served as a law clerk at every level of the federal judiciary, most recently as clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.”
Mizelle received her law degree from the University of Florida in 2012. According to its website, the Middle District of Florida stretches over 350 miles from the Georgia border on the northeast to south of Naples on Florida’s southwest coast. Made up of 14 district judges, 16 senior judges, and 17 magistrate judges, the district has five divisions in Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Ocala, Orlando, and Tampa. The clerk’s office is headquartered in the Orlando Division. The district includes 35 of Florida’s 67 counties. In 2017, the United States Census Bureau estimated that 57.7 percent of the state’s population resides in the district. In 2019, 11,034 cases were filed in the district.