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What to know about Judge Kathryn Mizelle, who struck down the travel mask mandate

Judge Kathryn Mizelle was confirmed as U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Florida in November 2020.
U.S. Federal Government
Judge Kathryn Mizelle was confirmed as U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Florida in November 2020.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down the federal mask mandate for airplanes and other modes of public transportation Monday, writing in a 59-page ruling that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its authority and failed to follow proper rulemaking procedures.

That decision, which led to U.S. airlines and other transportation hubs to promptly drop their mask mandates, has elicited mixed responses from travelers and concern from experts.

So who exactly is the judge at the center of it all?

Mizelle sits on the District Court for the Middle District of Florida. She was nominated by former President Donald Trump in September 2020 at age 33 and confirmed by a 49-to-41 Senate vote later that year.

The 2012 law school graduate has worked in at the U.S. Department of Justice and in private practice at Jones Day, and served as a law clerk for several federal judges as well as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Mizelle is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law (her alma mater) and belongs to the conservative Federalist Society, which advocates for an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

She is married to Chad Mizelle, who served as acting general counsel in the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration.

While Mizelle has not been in her position for long, she's found herself at the center of controversy before: During her Senate confirmation process, the American Bar Association (ABA) said she was not qualified for the position because she had not been practicing law for long enough.

She's been criticized for lacking professional experience

The ABA recommends that nominees for federal judgeships have at least 12 years of experience practicing law — whereas Mizelle was nominated for her current position only eight years after passing the bar.

In a letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the head of the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary said that a majority of his group had deemed that Mizelle did "not meet the requisite minimum standard of experience necessary to perform the responsibilities required by the high office of a federal trial judge."

"Since her admission to the bar Ms. Mizelle has not tried a case, civil or criminal, as lead or co-counsel," the ABA said, She did, however, have four federal clerkships, spend 10 months at a law firm and "approximately three years in government practice," which the ABA said equates to five years of trial court experience.

The ABA said her integrity and demeanor were not in question and complimented her keen intellect, strong work ethic and impressive resume.

"These attributes however simply do not compensate for the short time she has actually practiced law and her lack of meaningful trial experience," it added.

Mizelle did have the vocal support of Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who said, "It is unusual that I see an individual who has been out of law school for this period of time who has accumulated this much experience."

Civil rights groups opposed her nomination, in part because they wanted the Senate to focus on COVID

Other groups, including the Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. also opposed Mizelle's nomination for various reasons.

Both pointed to the ABA's statement about her lack of qualifications, and also slammed the Senate for focusing on judicial nominations rather than responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This vote comes at a time when the country is facing a catastrophic health and safety crisis which should be the focus of the Senate," the LDF said, adding that the Senate had not yet considered the HEROES COVID-19 relief act passed by the House of Representatives months earlier.

The leadership conference, a coalition of more than 200 civil and human rights organizations, said that Senate should be focused on addressing COVID-19, police violence against people of color and safeguarding the upcoming 2020 election and U.S. Postal Service rather than "remaking the federal courts."

The conference specifically opposed Mizelle's confirmation because of her lack of legal experience, as well as her involvement in civil rights cases in the Trump Justice Department and what it called her "extreme right-wing ideology."

It said that she helped dismantle many civil rights protections during her tenure as counsel to the associate attorney general in 2017 and 2018, including: rescinding Title IX guidance that protected transgender students, filing a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that businesses have the right to discriminate against LGBTQ customers, asking the Census Bureau to insert a citizenship question on the 2020 form and arguing in court that the Affordable Care Act's protections for people with pre-existing conditions are unconstitutional.

She also filed an amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposing a labor union request that the Trump administration's Occupational Safety and Health Administration implement emergency standards to protect health care providers and other essential workers, the conference said.

It said she espoused extreme right-wing views, citing previous public statements and organizational affiliations. Mizelle belongs to the far-right Teneo Network, clerked for "several of the most conservative jurists in the country" and called Thomas — who is considered the Supreme Court's most conservative justice — "the greatest living American."

Many critics of Mizelle's mask ruling turned to Twitter to note her lack of experience and conservative views.

"Elections matter in more ways than one," wrote former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance, adding thatthe ruling will have a nationwide effect at least until there is a potential appeal.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.