Trump SCOTUS Short Lister Joan Larsen Is Fast-Rising Star

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By Patrick Gregory

Nov. 30 — Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen might soon be asked to replace her mentor, Justice Antonin Scalia.

Larsen had been on the bench for less than a year before making President-elect Donald Trump’s short list of potential U.S. Supreme Court nominees. But the former Scalia clerk has spent her career considering the type of issues that could come before the court, including constitutional law, statutory interpretation, separation of powers and criminal law.

She has taught constitutional law at top-flight law schools and served as a deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration.

She’s a “Constitutional, rule-of-law judge” who “knows it’s not her job to legislate from the bench,” according to her campaign website.

Trump has said he’ll choose someone from his list to replace Scalia, who died unexpectedly Feb. 13.

Outsiders’ Year?

As a non-Ivy League graduate coming from a state court, Larsen would be a nontraditional nominee.

That could make her an attractive choice to Trump, who campaigned as an “outsider.”

Nominating a woman to the high court might be a smart political move for Trump, who has faced criticism for making offensive remarks about women.

Further, Larsen’s status as a judicial election winner in a state that Trump won narrowly could also weigh in her favor.

Scalia Devotee

Trump said he’s looking for a nominee that is “very much in the mold of” Scalia, which might explain in part Larsen’s inclusion on his list.

In “What I Learned From Justice Scalia,” Larsen wrote for the New York Times that Scalia taught her a “simple principle: That law came to the court as an is not an ought.”

“Statutes, cases and the Constitution were to be read for what they said, not for what the judges wished they would say,” Larsen said.

She said her “proudest moment” as a Scalia clerk “was convincing him, with two sleepless nights of research into dusty old precedents, that a criminal defendant should win a case that none of the justices originally thought he should win.”

“I’m pretty sure that was the moment he was most proud of me, too,” Larsen said.

Larsen also “had to learn to love anchovies” on pizza while clerking for Scalia, she told a radio host in April.

Experience, Fast Climb

Larsen had never served on a court until Sept. 30, 2015, when she was appointed to fill a vacancy on Michigan’s high court.

But she had served as a law professor at Northwestern University law school (where she was also first in her class as a student) and later at the University of Michigan law school for more than a decade.

Her teaching and research interests included constitutional law and statutory interpretation.

“The law school environment is much like an oral argument in court,” Larsen said in April.

The justice said “the transition to the bench has been pretty smooth because it’s pretty much what I’ve been doing in the classroom since 1998.”

Less than eight months after Larsen’s appointment, she appeared on Trump’s list of potential nominees.

Larsen “had no idea that was coming,” and she learned about it when her “cellphone started ringing uncontrollably,” she said on a radio show in May.

Campaign, Endorsements

In November, she won an election to keep her seat through 2018.

Larsen campaigned as “Justice Joan,” picking up multiple newspaper endorsements.

The Detroit Free Press praised Larsen’s “reputation for intellectual prowess and integrity,” while noting that Larsen “maintained a low profile in her first year on the court” despite being placed on Trump’s list.

Larsen’s “scholarly background prepared her well for the job,” The Detroit News said in another endorsement.

Separation of Powers

As a deputy assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, she provided counsel to the White House.

She later defended President Bush’s use of “signing statements,” which reserved his right not to enforce portions of new laws on constitutional grounds.

The “president’s independent vision of what the Constitution requires is critical,” Larsen wrote in a 2006 commentary for The Detroit News.

“Denying the president a constitutional voice is the real threat to our system of separated powers,” she said.

Treatment Courts

Larsen has been a liaison to and proponent of Michigan’s “problem-solving courts.”

Such courts identify offenders with the potential to “get back on the straight and narrow without being locked up,” Larsen said in May.

Michigan has 179 of these courts, which provide treatment for an underlying problem such as drug or alcohol addiction, she said.

“It turns out that getting people off the drugs and off booze and back working” is more effective than “just locking them up in jail and letting them out to reoffend,” Larsen said.

That’s “a win-win not just for the offenders, but for their families and the community as a whole,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick L. Gregory in Washington at pgregory@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bna.com

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