The path that took US District Judge J. Michelle Childs to a public honors college in Florida is about as unconventional as the rest of the eclectic professional journey that has now put the South Carolina jurist in contention for a seat on the Supreme Court.
She landed at the University of South Florida on a scholarship after a chance encounter in her high school guidance counselor’s office with a coach from the university who was recruiting for the school’s basketball team.
“What about those of us who are academic?” she recalled telling the coach, pressing him about the “focus on just the sport.”
The coach agreed to help facilitate her application to USF’s Honors College, according to her retelling during a 2020 virtual fireside chat organized by the South Carolina bar, and ultimately tapped her to tutor the basketball team.
Childs’ public education, which includes a law degree she obtained from University of South Carolina, as well as her professional experience including a trail-blazing partnership at a major law firm, stints at state government agencies and the grind of being a trial judge in state and federal court, sets her apart, admirers say, from many of the other Black female lawyers President Joe Biden is considering to replace the retiring Justice Stephen Breyer.
Weeks before Breyer announced his departure from the court, Biden nominated Childs to the powerful US Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, DC.
“I don’t know of anybody that’s ever served on the Supreme Court that’s had this kind of resume,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and Biden ally who has been aggressively advocating for her as a possible Breyer replacement. “It’s the kind of resume that Joe Biden talked about when he ran, talked about people that have the kinds of experiences that she has is the kind of people you want to bring into government.”
His enthusiasm is shared across the aisle in South Carolina, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham praising Childs on Sunday as “qualified by every measure” and “one of the most decent people I’ve ever met.”
‘Someone who has actually been in the game’
Childs, 55, is now a judge on South Carolina’s US District Court, a perch she ascended to after four years as a state court judge. She started her legal career at the South Carolina law firm Nexsen Pruet, where within nine years she made partner – the first Black woman to do so at the major firm. From Nexsen Pruet she was appointed in 2000 by then-Gov. Jim Hodges to be deputy director at the state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. She then served for four years as a commissioner on the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation board, before her election to the state judiciary in 2006. The US Senate confirmed her to her current role as a federal trial court judge in 2010.
“She brings some life experiences that a lot of judges don’t have that go to the Supreme Court,” Hodges, a Democrat, told CNN. “She, in my judgment, is not someone who’s been plotting and scheming to be on the Supreme Court since she was in high school and that’s the kind of person you actually want on the bench.”
Lawyers in South Carolina attest to her having a friendly demeanor, an open ear, a fair approach to the law and an ability to keep her cool even if the temperatures of the attorneys in front of her are rising.
If nominated and confirmed to the high court, she would be the only justice among the justices serving there now to have served on a state court.
“The bulk of what you would do as a state court judge here is trying everything from simple drug cases to death penalty, murder cases,” said Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator in South Carolina and a lawyer who has worked on cases before the judge. As a state court judge, she presided over “numerous” matters, according to filings she has submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, including a case concerning one of the largest car heists in US history amid many more lower-profile disputes.
“If anybody that’s going to be calling balls and strikes on cases, you want someone who has actually been in the game. Somebody who’s actually seen it up close. And she has been uncomfortably close,” Harpootlian said.
As her work on unglamourous cases continued as a federal judge, she also found herself overseeing disputes with state and national political significance. She sided with two Washington women who sought recognition of their marriage in South Carolina, finding in 2014 that the state’s refusal to do so was unconstitutional.
In 2020, she presided over some of the pandemic-related litigation around South Carolina’s mail voting rules. She halted the witness signature requirement for mail voting in that year’s primary, though a similar order she later issued for the state’s general election was scaled back by the US Supreme Court.
Last year, she refused to block a Covid-19 vaccine mandate being implemented by a nuclear cleanup company that contracts with the federal government.
Childs is currently sitting on a three-judge panel that is considering a redistricting challenge to South Carolina’s new state legislative map in a case set to begin trial at the end of the month.
Educational diversity the Supreme Court currently lacks
Childs was born in Detroit to a father who was a police officer and a mother who worked for a telephone company. Her father died when she was a teenager and her family moved to South Carolina after his death, according to a 2014 profile of the judge in the Greenville News. A valedictorian and student body president of her public high school in Columbia, she returned to South Carolina after earning her undergraduate degree to study law at University of South Carolina, where she also obtained a master’s degree from the university’s business school.
“She was always a go-getter,” said Kelly Seabrook, who met Childs during their first year of law school at University of South Carolina. “She was involved everything in law school.”
Her educational journey is a contrast to the routes followed by the justices currently on the court; all of but one of them attended Ivy League law schools (Justice Amy Coney Barrett obtained her law degree from Notre Dame) and many of them received their undergraduate educations at Ivy League schools as well.
“Why is it a top school only if it’s private and Ivy League?” Clyburn told CNN. “All nine of them went to private schools. There is nobody on the Supreme Court that has as diverse a background educationally as (Childs) has.”
While at Nexsen Pruet, Childs cut her teeth on employment and business law matters, but partners from other sections also sought her for their projects, according to Victoria Eslinger, a lawyer at the firm.
“If you talked to her about areas that you thought she should think about or could improve on, she went off, learned it, came back and she was better than you were,” Eslinger told CNN.
Eslinger recalled a lawsuit Childs brought on behalf of wildlife advocates, challenging a plan to lethally reduce the population of deer within a private community on Hilton Head.
Childs also represented employers in several cases where the companies had been accused of violating disability law or engaging in sexual harassment – a record that is now being scrutinized by some on the left.
“Workers do not need another anti-labor Justice actively opposing the very labor protections this administration is working to uphold and expand,” the progressive organization Our Revolution said in a statement this week.
Biden's SCOTUS front-runners
Eslinger, her former coworker at the firm, pushed back at the criticism by noting that Childs worked a wide variety of cases while at Nexsen Pruet, adding that some of those cases were settled before lawsuits were filed. Eslinger pointed to employment disputes where Childs assisted with her on the plaintiff side, including cases concerning allegations under anti-discrimination law and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield – a North Carolina Democrat who is backing Childs for the Supreme Court seat – said in response to Our Revolution’s statement that the “totality of her background” puts her above the other names being floated to replace Breyer.
While working for the state’s labor agency, Childs was known for keeping spirits high and the staff motivated in the face of budget cuts.
“She’d snap her finger. She’d say, ‘OK, folks, it’s time to step it up,’” said Rita McKinney, who worked with her at the department. “She inspired people and got them excited to do their jobs.”
Her work there also earned her the respect of the business community and members of both parties, according to Hodges, the former governor.
“It’s safe to say that she enjoys broad bipartisan support in the South Carolina bar,” he told CNN.
Lawyers who have advocated in front of Childs praise not just her level-headed approach but her ability to efficiently manage her docket and issue rulings quickly. She has done so while raising the daughter she shares with her husband, who is a doctor. She has also been active outside the courtroom, including earning a master’s degree from Duke while she was a federal judge, serving in leadership positions in various legal organizations and presiding over a moot court for middle school students.
“She really asked the kids tough questions, but she was also funny and encouraging, and that’s the way she is on the bench,” said Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of Howard Law School who started the moot court program when she was an associate dean at University of South Carolina. “That’s the kind of thing that most federal judges wouldn’t take time to do.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Rita McKinney’s role at the North Carolina labor agency. McKinney was a director and Childs was a deputy director.
CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson, Manu Raju and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.