Senate Panel Advances Nominees Poised to Reshape 11th Circuit

WASHINGTON (CN) – Two Florida Supreme Court justices and 11th Circuit nominees breezed through their initial Senate hearings Wednesday, moving the Atlanta-based appeals court closer to having a majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents.

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, home of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, both tied to the conservative Federalist Society, were tapped by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to sit on the state’s high court earlier this year.

Now, after being nominated by President Donald Trump and receiving glowing endorsements from Republican senators like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida, the justices are on track to become the newest judges of the 11th Circuit.

Lagoa is the daughter of Cuban exiles and became the first Cuban-American woman appointed to the Florida Supreme Court.

At Wednesday’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, she thanked Trump for nominating her and expressed her commitment to the law in light of her family’s experience under Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

“I owe my parents everything… As a judge, I owe to them my deep fidelity to the rule of law and my belief that it must be applied impartially and consistently. Unlike the country my parents fled, we are a nation of laws, not men,” Lagoa said.

Lagoa’s journey as a woman of color to the 11th Circuit is significant in light of the federal judiciary’s majority-white demographic.

According to a recent study by the Center for American Progress, 80% of all federal judges are white and 70% of all judges are male. Only 6.6% of federal judges are of Latino or Hispanic heritage even though that group makes up 18% of the U.S. population.

Black representation is no better. While African-Americans make up 12.5% of the overall population, they comprise just 10% of all federal judges.

“These statistics are regrettable,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said at the hearing. “So, I particularly welcome your nomination and your qualifications to the federal bench.”

Though Lagoa is conservative, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee generally appeared comfortable with her judicial history

However, Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., questioned Lagoa’s joining of the 2016 Florida case Caterpillar Logistics v. Amaya, which overturned damages awarded to an employee alleging retaliation and discrimination. Rudolf Amaya was granted $500,000 in damages by the trial court, but on appeal Lagoa and two other judges opted to reverse the decision and rule that Amaya was entitled to nothing.

“In that case, the defendant did not have the ability to perform work at the time. Under the existing Florida law, he is not entitled to be compensated for lost wages if he is unable to work at all. I decide all cases based on applicable law,” Lagoa said.

Lagoa calls herself a constitutional originalist. She told Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz that if jurists are not bound by the Constitution, then the U.S. is “no different than the country my parents fled from.”

“The principles articulated at ratification, the meaning, it is constant. What changes is the application of the meaning to new things,” she said.

Luck, hailed in conservative circles as a judge modeled after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, also received a warm bipartisan welcome on Wednesday.

He faced questions about his time serving in the Florida Third District of Appeals. During his tenure there, Luck dissented in a medical malpractice case involving a doctor sued by a woman who claimed the doctor waited two years to inform her that she had breast cancer.

A jury ruled against the doctor but he was eventually granted a new trial after it was determined the trial judge incorrectly told jurors that the lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations.

Luck dissented, saying the jury was not affected by that mistake.

“It was the equivalent of plain error. The other side did not object to any instructions that ultimately led to reversal… the jury found no negligence and never reached statute of limitation issue. When the jury found the doctor didn’t act negligently, all that I did was affirm the Seventh Amendment right that plaintiff had to a jury trial and the jury finding against this plaintiff based on evidence,” he said.

John Gallagher, nominated to serve on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, received bipartisan support as well. Rated well-qualified by the American Bar Association, Gallagher is a former police officer and has worked in the Bronx County, New York and Monroe County, Pennsylvania district attorney offices. He’s also served as a special prosecutor for the New York Police Department and has served as special counsel to the Philadelphia Police Commissioner.

“Well, if you’ve been a cop in New York, you’ve seen a lot. That’ll make you a good judge,” Senator Graham said.

Sherri Lydon, nominated to serve as a U.S. District Judge for the District of South Carolina, also sailed through her hearing. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate last year as the U.S. attorney for South Carolina.

In addition, Silvia Carreno-Coll is poised to become the next federal judge in the District of Puerto Rico. Graham commended her work defending police officers and government officials in Puerto Rico during the 1990s. She is also rated well-qualified by the ABA.

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