Janice Rogers Brown, America's Most Libertarian Federal Judge, Is Retiring

The possible replacements include Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett.


U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

President Donald Trump will soon have the opportunity to fill a key vacancy on the federal bench. As The Wall Street Journal and Buzzfeed have reported, Janice Rogers Brown, an outspoken federal judge with strong libertarian tendencies, will retire next month after serving 12 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

A former California Supreme Court justice, Brown was first nominated to the federal judiciary in 2003 by President George W. Bush, but Senate Democrats repeatedly blocked her confirmation. She was eventually confirmed in 2005.

During her tenure on the D.C. Circuit, Brown emerged as a powerful voice in defense of civil and economic liberties. In the 2015 case of United States v. Gross, for example, Brown filed a sharp dissent lambasting the pro-police "prevailing orthodoxy" in Fourth Amendment cases. The right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, Brown maintained, should clearly forbid law enforcement from conducting "a rolling roadblock that sweeps citizens up at random and subjects them to undesired police interactions culminating in a search of their persons and effects." Yet somehow "our case law considers such a policy consistent with the Fourth Amendment." Brown disagreed: "I continue to think this [case law] is error."

Brown has been equally critical of government malfeasance in the economic realm. In the 2012 case of Hettinga v. United States, for instance, Brown came out swinging against the Supreme Court case law that left the D.C. Circuit with no choice but to uphold a federal price-rigging scheme that made it illegal for an upstart family dairy farm to bottle and sell its own milk for 20 cents less than the competition. This case "reveals an ugly truth," Brown wrote. "America's cowboy capitalism was long ago disarmed by a democratic process increasingly dominated by powerful groups with economic interests antithetical to competitors and consumers. And the courts, from which the victims of burdensome regulation sought protection, have been negotiating the terms of surrender since the 1930s."

Brown also has the distinction of being denounced as a crazy libertarian by Barack Obama. In 2005, then-Sen. Obama voted against Brown's confirmation to the D.C. Circuit because he disliked her views on economic liberty and the Constitution. "One of the things that is most troubling is Justice Brown's approval of the Lochner era of the Supreme Court," Obama said, referring to Lochner v. New York, the 1905 case in which the Supreme Court struck down a state economic regulation because it served no legitimate health or safety purpose and thus violated the 14th Amendment. As it happens, Obama is the one who is wrong about Lochner.

The news of Brown's retirement has already prompted speculation and debate about her possible replacement. At The Volokh Conspiracy, Case Western law professor Jonathan Adler suggests that the Trump administration may want "to use the D.C. Circuit opening to break the apparent logjam over nominations to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit." That logjam, which has been extensively covered and analyzed by David Lat at Above the Law, boils down to this: There are currently two Texas openings on the 5th Circuit and three real contenders in the running. Each contender has the support of powerful political figures in Texas.

One of the three contenders is Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett. Because Willett recently appeared on Donald Trump's Supreme Court shortlist, he would seem to be a natural pick for the 5th Circuit. But Texas politics have so far apparently prevented any 5th Circuit nominees from being named. The solution now proffered by Adler is for Trump to nominate Willett (or one of the other two) to the D.C. Circuit and thus make federal appellate judges out of all three in one swoop.

Hugh Hewitt, the conservative talk radio host and influential political pundit, is now pushing this very plan. "The retirement of Judge Janice Rogers Brown solves 5th logjam problem. @JusticeWillett to D.C. Circuit," Hewitt recently tweeted.

Nominating Willett to the D.C. Circuit does make sense. Besides breaking the "logjam," it would replace the liberty-minded Brown with the liberty-minded Willett. Much like Brown, Willett is famous for his judicial benchslaps against both overreaching law enforcement and against overreaching government regulators.

If the White House is looking for a fitting replacement for Janice Rogers Brown on the D.C. Circuit, Don Willett would appear to be it.