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‘Justice Joan’ Larsen emerges as finalist for Supreme Court

Joan Larsen photo
Associated Press

One of the women on Donald Trump’s short list to succeed Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court got her first taste of politics as a college student stuffing envelopes for Democrat Joe Biden’s 1988 presidential run.

But, by 1996, Joan L. Larsen was volunteering for Republican Bob Dole, and today few doubt her conservative credentials, which includes a longtime affiliation with the Federalist Society.

Larsen is among a small group of female lawyers whom Trump is considering to replace Ginsburg, the liberal icon whose death last week gave conservatives a chance to move the court further to the right. White House officials say Trump was referring to Larsen when he said Monday his finalists included “a great one from Michigan.” On Tuesday, he called her “very talented” in an interview with a local television station.

In just five years, Joan L. Larsen has gone from a little-known University of Michigan legal scholar to a prominent federal appeals court judge and now a candidate for the high court.

Conservative activists hope that, if nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Larsen would carry on the legacy of her mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she clerked in the early 1990s and eulogized after his 2016 death.

For Trump, picking Larsen could give him a boost in the critical battleground state of Michigan, where she has raised her two children, advanced her career and won election to the state Supreme Court.

Liberals fear that she would follow in Scalia’s footsteps by voting to overrule decisions that legalized abortion rights and gay marriage and other rulings that Scalia and his followers vociferously oppose.

At 52, Larsen would be a candidate who could serve on the high court for three decades or longer. Her father, Leonard Larsen, the retired CEO of a Lutheran social services agency, died in April at age 91. Her mother is 89.

Larsen’s rise began when Michigan’s then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed her to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court in September 2015, praising her as a “superb attorney” who had experience in government, academia and private practice.

“When she called to tell me, I was shocked. I had no idea that she was thinking such a thing,” said Sarah Zearfoss, a longtime colleague at the Michigan law school who has marveled at her friend’s ascent.

“Justice Joan” campaigned for a full term as a judge who would interpret the state constitution according to its original meaning and not “legislate from the bench.” Her campaign was backed by the Republican Party and business groups such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Even before she won a full eight-year term, Trump included her on his list of potential nominees to the Supreme Court — a development that she called a “complete surprise.” She easily won election in November 2016 on the same day that Trump carried Michigan in a surprise victory.

Trump tapped Larsen for a seat on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017, which hears appeals in federal cases in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

Michigan’s Democratic U.S. senators initially held up her appointment since the White House hadn’t consulted them, as is customary. But ultimately they allowed her confirmation to move forward after Larsen met with them, and joined with six other Democrats in a 60-38 confirmation vote.

In a 2018 interview, Zearfoss described Larsen as a “solid Republican” who is smart, thoughtful, kind and funny — even though they disagree on political issues.

“It will be really hard not to like Joan,” said Zearfoss, an assistant dean at the law school.

Critics say that during her relatively short judicial career, Larsen has at times favored corporations, insurers and police officers while showing less regard for workers, injured plaintiffs, environmental concerns, criminal suspects and immigrants.

In a recent decision, a dissenting judge accused Larsen and a colleague of turning a “blind eye to race-based policing that violates the constitutional rights of black and brown Americans.”

Republicans have defended the Northwestern Law School graduate as a mainstream judge with impeccable credentials. In her 2017 confirmation hearing, she said she has ruled evenly and never given any public or private promises that she would overrule Roe vs. Wade or any other precedents.

Attorney Richard Bernstein worked as co-counsel with Larsen on a yearlong trial when they were both lawyers at Sidley & Austin in Washington, which she joined for three years after clerking for Scalia. In a 2018 interview, he said Larsen was a smart lawyer and fine judge.

But Bernstein, a former Scalia clerk himself, said he worried that all candidates on Trump’s list would seek to overrule decisions on abortion and gay rights that Scalia opposed.

“The belief that those decisions are not only wrong but illegitimate runs so deep” among movement conservatives, he said.

Larsen spoke at Scalia’s memorial service in 2016, praising his intellect, upbeat attitude and the opportunities he gave his clerks.

“What better preparation for any of us, male or female, than to have matched wits with the justice?” she said. “With each thrust and parry, we got sharper.”

Larsen appears to have an expansive view of the powers of the presidency, a topic which she’s taught in law school. She wrote a 2006 article defending President George W. Bush’s use of signing statements to interpret laws passed by Congress. She also worked in the Office of Legal Counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice from 2002 to 2003, drafting legal opinions involving the Patriot Act, detainees’ rights and other matters.

Larsen assured senators in 2017 that she would have no problem ruling against Trump if the law demanded it. She said that Scalia taught her “that the law governs, not personal interest.”

Larsen is married to University of Michigan law professor Adam Pritchard. They live in Scio Township near Ann Arbor and have two children.