September 8, 2017

Young, out-of-state lawyer could be a new federal judge for NM

Joe Gratz


A federal court of appeals judge from New Mexico, who is expected to step down soon, could be replaced by a lawyer with less than 10 years of legal work under his belt and very loose ties to the state.

NM Political Report learned the White House sent a short list of possible replacements for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Paul Kelly Jr. Names on the list include  prominent judges and lawyers who currently practice in New Mexico—and one is a lawyer from Washington D.C. who previously worked for a Utah senator and whose family owns a cattle ranch in New Mexico.

William Levi, a lawyer in his early 30s who graduated law school in 2010, spent a year as a clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Anthony Scirica and later for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Levi also spent about two years as a staffer for Utah Senator Mike Lee, a libertarian-leaning member of the Republican Party. NM Political Report left a voice message for Levi at his Washington D.C. office and emailed him, but only received an out of office reply.

Some members of  the New Mexico legal community want to know how  a young lawyer with just seven years of legal experience  ended up on a list of preferred judges from the Trump administration.

Andy Schultz, an Albuquerque attorney and chair of the Albuquerque Board of Ethics told NM Political Report he doesn’t think Levi has enough experience to hear cases at the court of appeals, which is the last stop before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I can’t possibly see how this guy has the qualifications to serve on the Court of Appeals,” Schultz said.

Qualified or not, Levi comes from a well-connected family.

Levi’s father, David Levi, is the Dean of the Duke University School of Law, a former U.S. District Court judge and former U.S. Attorney in California. William Levi’s grandfather, Edward Levi, was a former U.S. Attorney General.

William Levi’s mother, Nancy Ranney Levi, is part-owner of the Ranney Ranch, a large cattle ranch in Corona, New Mexico.

Instead, Schultz supports  his former colleague, U.S. District Court Judge Jim Browning, who is also reportedly on the White House list. Schultz thinks family connections may have helped William Levi.

“There are clearly much, much more qualified and deserving candidates,” Schultz said.

The list of  possible replacements hasn’t been made public, but the prominent law blog speculated other replacements might include New Mexico Court of Appeals Judge Miles Hanisee, Roswell attorney and part-time magistrate judge Joel Carson and Santa Fe attorney Ben Allison.

Browning’s law career spans three decades and he spent the first part clerking for both a federal court of appeals judge and a Supreme Court justice. Hanisee graduated law school in 1993 and has worked as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New Mexico as well as in private practice.

Offices for Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich would not confirm exactly what list they may have received from the White House, but they, and the office of U.S. Rep Steve Pearce, confirmed they were in talks.

The position would require a confirmation from the Senate.

“The New Mexico delegation continues to work together to identify and recommend qualified New Mexicans for presidential appointments, as it did with the U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshal nominations,” a joint statement from the three offices read.

While Pearce will not cast a vote for in the confirmation, he may have influence with the Republican Trump administration. Heinrich and Udall are both Democrats and frequent critics of the president.

According to Schultz about 99 percent of cases will not make it past the appeals process.

“These are the last three people a litigant will see,” Schultz said.

Kelly is expected to take senior status, or semi-retire, once his replacement has been picked.

Browning and Hanisee appear to be favorites among the New Mexico legal community due to their extensive experience in New Mexico law.

Albuquerque attorney Blair Dunn has filed appeals in the 10th circuit and said Browning and Hanisee both seem to fit the profile of a federal judge. Dunn said he’s concerned with Levi’s limited legal experience, especially in New Mexico. As part of a ranching family, Dunn said he knows the Ranney family but still can’t get behind William Levi’s nomination.

“As a lawyer it makes me very nervous,” Dunn said.

Dunn, 35, said he would not consider himself qualified for a position on a federal court.

The National Bar Association also published guidance on how much experience a federal judge should have, writing, “a nominee to the federal bench ordinarily should have at least twelve years’ experience in the practice of law.”

There is still no word on who the Trump administration favors, but Schultz said the President will ultimately get his way.

“Truth be told,” Schultz said. “The President not getting his nominee is the exception not the rule.”