During his U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearing in March 2017, Neil Gorsuch recalled a memory from the 1990s, when as a freshly minted Harvard Law grad he spent a year as a clerk in the chambers of D.C. Circuit Judge David Sentelle.
Sentelle had written a panel opinion that went one way at the beginning of the year, Gorsuch remembered, but by the end of the year, the judge wrote an en banc opinion reversing his panel opinion. “Now, some people say that is a man who does not have a spine, something like that. I say that is a judge with an open mind,” Gorsuch said.
Gorsuch admiringly offered up the anecdote to reflect on a “crucial” lesson from his former boss. It was an example he said he’d emulate if he were on the court: “Keep an open mind, read the briefs. And I could change my mind.”
Gorsuch’s comment reflected how experiences in a judge’s chambers can help shape lawyers’ experiences, molding the future of the federal bench.
Sentelle is near the top of the list of federal appeals court judges who are now helping that transformation. As President Donald Trump and Republicans in the U.S. Senate continue to shape the federal bench, they’ve eyed at least five Trump nominees who’ve worked in Sentelle’s chambers, according to research conducted by the National Law Journal.
Along with Gorsuch, other former Sentelle clerks who have made Trump’s list of judicial nominees include Joan Larsen, who is now on the Sixth Circuit and is on Trump’s Supreme Court short list; Andrew Oldham who is on the Fifth Circuit; Allison Jones Rushing, up for a Fourth Circuit seat; and Steven Seeger, a district court nominee to the Northern District of Illinois.
Sentelle is hardly the only appeals court judge who is making a mark; many of the judges also filling Trump’s judicial nominations pool are Reagan or George H.W. Bush appointees.
One of the country’s most conservative appeals court judges—Jerry Smith, of the Fifth Circuit, who in 2015 famously wrote a majority opinion upholding a lower court’s decision to block implementation of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program—has also mentored three former clerks who are all on the federal appeals courts now. Allison Eid, another Trump short lister, now on the Tenth Circuit, clerked for the judge, as did the Fifth Circuit’s Jim Ho and the Sixth Circuit’s John Nalbandian.
Laurence Silberman, another Reagan appointee and now senior judge on the D.C. Circuit, has contributed three former clerks to Trump’s roster of judicial nominees. The conservative icon and mentor to Justice Clarence Thomas—who’s also surprised many by voting to uphold the Affordable Care Act in 2011—may count Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who was prominently mentioned as a high court hopeful this past summer, as well as Eric Miller, a Perkins Coie partner up for a Ninth Circuit opening, and Carl Nichols, a Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr partner who has been nominated to a D.C. trial court seat, as former clerks.
A handful of federal appellate judges have had two former clerks nominated by Trump to the federal bench. Trump has eyed, for example, two former clerks of Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, who’s also a prominent feeder judge to the Supreme Court. One of those nominees, Ryan Bounds, was nominated to replace O’Scannlain, who took senior status, but his nomination was withdrawn over a series of writings he had penned as a Stanford undergraduate.
Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III and Chief Judge of the Tenth Circuit Timothy Tymkovich, both SCOTUS feeders, have placed judges on the bench; now-senior Eleventh Circuit Judge J.L. Edmondson, and current Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat have also contributed two names.
The Fourth Circuit also produced two other Trump nominees: Eighth Circuit Judge David Stras and Utah trial court nominee Howard Nielson clerked for former judge J. Michael Luttig.
Third Circuit Judge Walter Stapleton counts Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Colm Connolly, a district judge in Delaware, as former clerks. Kavanaugh, after clerking for Stapleton, went on to work under Judge Alex Kozinski, the conservative Ninth Circuit judge who resigned last year amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Two nominees have clerked for Fifth Circuit Judge John Malcolm Duhé Jr. Stuart Kyle Duncan, now a Fifth Circuit judge, clerked for him on the circuit court. M. Miller Baker, a McDermott Will & Emery partner who’s nominated to the court of international trade, clerked for Duhe when he was a district judge in the Western District of Louisiana.
Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, an appointee of George W. Bush to the D.C. Circuit, has produced two Trump judicial nominees, highlighting the influence of the Washington appeals court, which is considered by many to be the second most powerful court in the country. Ryan Nelson, now on the Ninth Circuit, and Emin Toro, who has been nominated to the U.S. Tax court, were both former Henderson clerks.
One judge who has seen one former clerk join the federal appeals court bench: Brett Kavanaugh. His former clerk, Britt Grant, who has been seated on the Atlanta-based Eleventh Circuit since August, was the sole clerk for Kavanaugh who has made it onto Trump’s list.
Kavanaugh was long a top feeder appeals court judge to the Supreme Court, although Grant herself never clerked at One First Street Northeast.
The Trump administration has nominated one former clerk of the president’s sister, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, now a senior judge on the Third Circuit. Jonathan Katchen, a district court nominee in Alaska, has since withdrawn his bid. Katchen, who works at the Anchorage office of Holland & Hart, cited the uncertainty over his nomination—he said he was “sitting in limbo for too long”—as the reason for withdrawing his bid.