A little-known federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump found herself in the national spotlight on Monday after striking down the Biden administration’s public transportation mask mandate.
US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle has been serving as a federal judge in Florida for more than a year. Notably, the Senate vote confirming her to the lifetime appointment came in mid-November 2020, after the presidential election. She had been given a “not qualified” rating by the American Bar Association, based on her limited amount of experience post-law school.
Born in Lakeland, Florida, in 1987, Mizelle graduated in 2012 with a law degree from University of Florida Levin College of Law, after earning her undergraduate degree at Covenant College, a Christian liberal arts college in Georgia.
Before becoming a judge, she was an associate with the law firm Jones Day in Washington, DC, and an adjunct law professor at her alma mater. Mizelle held four federal clerkships throughout her career, including one with US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from 2018 to 2019.
From 2017 to 2018, she was counsel to one of the third-ranking officials at the Justice Department, then-Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, where she oversaw the Tax Division and led the administration’s efforts to promote free speech on college campuses.
She spent about three years as a trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Tax Division, where she prosecuted white-collar crimes, and before that was a special assistant US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia for a year, she told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
According to the American Bar Association, the two cases she had tried to verdict were when she said she was a certified legal intern for Florida’s state attorney’s office and still in law school.
A member of the Federalist Society, Mizelle, then 33, was nominated by Trump in early September 2020, in a confirmation without any support by Senate Democrats, who were in the minority at the time.
During her Senate hearing that month, Mizelle was pressed by Democrats about her lack of experience and other issues such as an amicus brief she had filed while in private practice, on the behalf of clients in supporting the Department of Labor’s decision not to issue mandatory safety rules to protect workers from contracting Covid-19.
Mizelle was also asked about John Eastman – who later pressed for ways to overturn the presidential election – who at the time was pushing a racist conspiracy theory that Vice President Kamala Harris might not be eligible for the role because her parents were immigrants. Mizelle said she did not endorse the views expressed by Eastman, who worked for the Claremont Institute, where Mizelle participated in a weeklong fellowship.
Mizelle was given the “not qualified” rating by the American Bar Association when she was nominated, based on her lack of experience – which is a primary focus of the ABA’s ranking system.
“(A) nominee to the federal bench ordinarily should have at least 12 years’ experience in the practice of law,” the ABA said in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2020. The ABA’s “Backgrounder” adds that “in evaluating the professional qualifications of a nominee, the Standing Committee recognizes that substantial courtroom and trial experience as a lawyer or trial judge is important.”
While Mizelle was admitted to practice law in September 2012, the ABA notes that “a nominee’s limited experience may be offset by the breadth and depth of the nominee’s experience over the course of her or his career.” In this case, the ABA wrote, Mizelle had not tried a civil or criminal case as a lead or co-counsel.
In its letter, the ABA said it was not questioning Mizelle’s character or future ability. “Ms. Mizelle has a very keen intellect, a strong work ethic and an impressive resume,” the letter states. “She presents as a delightful person and she has many friends who support her nomination. Her integrity and demeanor are not in question. These attributes however simply do not compensate for the short time she has actually practiced law and her lack of meaningful trial experience.”
Asked about the ABA’s letter in her Senate Judiciary written questionnaire, Mizelle wrote, “I do not fully understand its methodology or why they omitted discussion of my litigation as a federal prosecutor where I appeared and argued in federal district court.”
During her confirmation hearing, Mizelle was asked by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas what she’d tell litigants worried about her lack of experience.
“I would work myself to figure it out, to learn it quickly. I would bring all of my energy and intensity to mastering the task at hand,” she said.
Mizelle was confirmed by the Senate in a 49-41 party-line vote in November 2020. She was later sworn in by Thomas.
She is married to former Trump administration official Chad Mizelle, who was the acting top attorney for the Department of Homeland Security.
CNN’s Tierney Sneed and Dan Berman contributed to this report.