Amy Coney Barrett, left, and Scott Palk, right. (Courtesy photos)
The legal academy is well represented in President Donald Trump’s initial slate of federal judicial nominees, unveiled Monday.
Two of the 10 nominees to the lower federal courts are current law faculty members. Amy Coney Barrett, nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, has been a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School since 2002 and graduated from the South Bend, Indiana, law school at the top of her class in 1997. Scott Palk is currently the assistant dean of students at his alma mater the University of Oklahoma College of Law, and was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.
Two more of the recent nominees have strong law school ties. David Stras was on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School from 2004 to 2010 before joining the Minnesota Supreme Court. Trump nominated Stras to the Eight Circuit.
Joan Larsen, a nominee to the Sixth Circuit, has never been a tenured faculty member. But the Michigan Supreme Court justice was a visiting assistant professor at her alma mater the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in 1997, and has lectured at the University of Michigan Law School for more than a decade.
Trump’s nominations stand to serve as a boost for these law schools, which may see benefits from the exposure and recognition of judicial appointments that can last far beyond a particular administration’s tenure.
The deans said they are heartened to see law professors among the candidates Trump is considering for federal judicial vacancies.
“I think it’s good to have judges who have substantial practice experience, and it’s good to have some judges from the academy,” said Notre Dame law Dean Nell Jessup Newton, noting that U.S. Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer each have backgrounds in the legal academy. “It’s good to have women. It’s good to have all sorts of different people. I think it’s all about balance.”
Many law professors bring a combination of experience to the table, Oklahoma law Dean Joseph Harroz Jr. said. Palk, for example, spent two decades as a federal and state prosecutor before joining the Oklahoma law faculty. “Academia has a deep and rich pool of individuals who are great intellectuals, who have also been great practitioners, who have thought deeply about the law and understand the importance of the next generation of lawyers,” he said. “Hopefully that is seen as a positive when thinking about who to nominate to the federal bench.”
In addition to a reputation boost, there are also practical benefits to the law schools, including, most notably, potential new pipelines for placing law students in highly sought-after federal judicial clerkships.
“Scott Palk has no choice but to hire our students,” Harroz joked, though he was serious when he said Oklahoma students would have better odds of securing a clerkship with Palk, if he’s confirmed, because the assistant dean knows how talented and hard-working the student body is. Notre Dame, too, is hoping Barrett’s confirmation would open new opportunities for students.
“We hope she will see the great qualities of our students when hiring clerks,” Newton said. “No pressure intended. I’m sure she won’t just hire from Notre Dame, but we punch above our weight in clerkships.”
Newton also hopes Barrett will maintain some teaching relationship with the law school, not unlike Kenneth Francis Ripple, a Seventh Circuit judge who has taken senior status, but who maintains an office at the law school, mentor students, and teaches one seminar a year at Notre Dame.
Palk was initially nominated to the Oklahoma’s district court by former President Barack Obama in December 2015, but the nomination stalled out as the Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold a vote—among the many Obama judicial nominations to languish. The Oklahoma Law community is hoping for a different outcome this time around.
“Scott Palk is beloved here,” Harroz said. “He’s our dean of student and he’s one of those unique people who is both loved and effective. We’re sad, obviously, at the prospect of losing him here at the law school, but we know how important the position is and how good he’ll be in that role should the process go well.”
Barrett, who is the mother of seven, is consistently among Notre Dame’s top-rated law professors, Newton said. “She’s incredibly rigorous, and the students love her,” she said. “She doesn’t put up with anything, and she’s super smart. She’s even-keeled, and the students feel she’s extremely fair.”
On the down side, Barrett’s potential move to the federal bench will leave a hole in Notre Dame’s class schedule.
“I told her I hope and fear she’ll get this job,” Newton said. “She teaches federal courts. She teaches evidence and civil procedure. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’”
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