The U.S. Department of Justice’s sweeping new lawsuit challenging California’s immigration laws will go before a veteran judge, appointed by President George W. Bush, who lawyers called a “steady hand” in the courtroom.
U.S. District Judge John Mendez, who’s served on the Eastern District of California bench since 2008, was assigned the case United States of America v. State of California, a challenge to three California laws that restrict stat
e and local cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Mendez, a native of Oakland, formerly served as a judge on the Sacramento Superior Court from 2001 to 2008. Prior to that, Mendez was the interim U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California for a one-year stint starting in 1992. President George H.W. Bush nominated him to fill the post outright but the U.S. Senate never voted on his confirmation.
The Justice Department has asked Mendez for a preliminary injunction to block the state laws, a move California Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday called a “completely unprecedented political stunt.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in Sacramento on Wednesday, told the California Peace Officers Association that California “is a great state. I don’t want to be in a position of challenging these laws.” But, he said, California and other “sanctuary jurisdictions” are “actively obstructing federal law enforcement.” He called the state’s political leaders “open-border radicals” and “extremists.”
“California is using every power it has—and some it doesn’t—to frustrate federal law enforcement,” Sessions said. “So you can be sure I’m going to use every power I have to stop them.”
California leaders fired back. Brown, flanked by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at a news conference, accused Sessions of acting “more like Fox News than a law enforcement officer.” The state’s laws do not hamper federal law enforcement and the lawsuit is meritless, the governor said.
“This is basically going to war against the state of California,” Brown said.
The California Senate has kept Covington & Burling on retainer since last year for guidance on immigration matters. On Wednesday, Covington partner and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. told Capitol reporters that the firm planned to file an amicus brief on behalf of the Senate challenging the federal lawsuit.
“The Trump administration lawsuit is really a political and unconstitutional attack on the state of California’s rights,” Holder said.
Holder was joined by Covington partner David Zionts and special counsel Monica Ramírez Almadani.
‘He Calls Balls and Strikes Pretty Well’
Becerra and Holder said the Justice Department’s lawsuit opens the Trump administration to discovery about its motivation for suing California.
Mendez, the judge, asked the lawyers in the case to file a briefing schedule by Friday. California’s legal team had not yet filed any notice of appearance. The Justice Department is working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California, led now by McGregor Scott, a former Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe partner.
Beyond his work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Mendez’s stints in private practice include a partnership at Downey, Brand, Seymour & Rohwer and serving of counsel to the law firm Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison in San Francisco from 1993 to 1995. In Sacramento, Mendez was formerly a shareholder in 1995 at Somach Simmons & Dunn.
Mendez attended Stanford University in the 1970s where he played second base for the Cardinal baseball team. An avid baseball fan, Mendez was once under consideration for the job of Major League Baseball commissioner, said Sacramento attorney Mark Reichel.
“It means he calls balls and strikes pretty well,” Reichel said. “This case is a perfect pick for him,” he added. “He’s very educated, and he’s probably all that’s right with federal judicial ethics. You can’t put Judge Mendez on the political spectrum because he looks at the law. He’s very fair.”
Mendez was not immediately reached for comment Wednesday.
Reichel also called the judge compassionate. Mendez in 2015 stunned participants in a mortgage fraud case when he sentenced five defendants in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud case to probation instead of prison. Reichel said he had expected his clients, convicted at trial, would be sentenced to up to 20 years behind bars. Mendez had recently sent one defendant in a different mortgage case to prison for 19 years. This time, the judge told prosecutors it would be “wrong” to lock the defendants up.
“That’s Mendez being Mendez,” defense attorney William Portanova, who was unaffiliated with the case, told The Sacramento Bee at the time. “He’s an independent thinker.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2012 called out Mendez for his “dismissive attitude”—remarks from the bench—in a debt collection case. “We are struck by the district judge’s forceful statements: the case was ‘unnecessary,’ a ‘waste of time,’ ‘not worth a dime,’ and ‘should never have been filed.’ Indeed, the record reflects an unfortunate dismissive attitude by the district judge” to the plaintiff and class, the appeals court said. The panel reassigned the case.
Mendez “has a steady hand. He calls them as he sees them. He’s independent,” Portanova said. “He is not a political person at all.”
However Mendez rules, the Justice Department’s complaint will likely make its way to the Ninth Circuit and beyond. Mendez will understand that, Reichel said. “He’s not somebody who looks over his shoulder,” Reichel said. “He’s not afraid to pull the trigger.”