AGE: 43

Sitting in the Kentucky town of London (with a population of 10,000), Judge Amul Thapar doesn’t handle many matters that draw attention outside his district. But two years ago, a case involving a huge coal mine operator brought him into the national eye.

Massey Energy Company was already in the headlines for an April 2010 explosion at one of its mines in West Virginia that killed 29 workers. The government intensified its scrutiny of Massey’s other operations, especially the Freedom Mine No. 1 in Pike County, Kentucky, where regulators had found thousands of safety violations, including explosive methane leaks, rock falls, and unstable ceilings. In November 2010 the U.S. Department of Labor filed a rare claim for injunctive relief in which it essentially asked the court to seize and supervise the Freedom mine. Massey responded by filing a motion in which it asked Thapar to dismiss the case. The company maintained that the department’s request for an injunction was premature since it hadn’t tried other less serious enforcement actions first.

“Not so,” Thapar wrote in a December order in which he turned down Massey’s motion to dismiss. “The secretary [of Labor] can come to court to eliminate the ‘continuing hazard’ without trudging through a series of administrative procedures.” Three weeks after Thapar’s ruling, Massey reached a settlement with the Labor Department in which it agreed to strict oversight of the mine’s closure.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Gregory Garre is one of several lawyers we talked to who had praise for Thapar. “His writing is superb,” says Garre, now a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Latham & Watkins. “He tends to have a scholarly and commonsense approach to legal issues. It compares well with the best writers on the appellate courts.” Thapar has taught at several law schools, including those at the University of Cincinnati, Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia, Georgetown University, and Northern Kentucky University.

After receiving his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1994, Thapar clerked for Judge Nathaniel Jones of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He joined Williams & Connolly as an associate in 1997, leaving two years later to become an assistant U.S. attorney, first in Washington, D.C., then in Cincinnati. In both cities, his practice focused on criminal prosecution: sex crimes, public corruption, and white-collar crime. In 2006 he became U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, based in Lexington. He established a prison litigation unit, and set up a violent crime and child predator unit. Born to Indian American parents in Detroit, Thapar is the first person of South Asian descent to be confirmed as an Article III judge.

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