Politics & Government

What kind of U.S. appeals judge will Columbia attorney be?

Jay Richardson
Jay Richardson

After the U.S. Senate’s 81-8 confirmation Thursday of federal prosecutor Jay Richardson to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, pundits are speculating what kind of judge the Columbia attorney will make.

President Trump’s nominees to the federal bench have ranged from Matthew Petersen, who never had tried a case, to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, an experienced, predictable conservative, to Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a favorite of evangelical groups.

Richardson, 41, a leader in the U.S. attorney’s white-collar crime division in Columbia, is “very different” from those nominees, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond Law School.

“It’s hard to predict just what he will do,” Tobias said.

Richardson is distinctive.

Most nominees to the 13 U.S. appeals courts have been judges and have a track record of written opinions. Richardson never has been a judge and has no record of decisions.

What he does have is a conservative-leaning pedigree, outstanding academic credentials, numerous convictions in high-profile cases and top recommendations.

“We are unified in the belief that he possesses the temperament, experience, intelligence and judgment to serve with distinction,” said a letter of recommendation to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter was signed by all 34 law clerks — for conservative justices like Antonin Scalia and liberals like Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who served when Richardson was a clerk to former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Richardson is a member of the Federalist Society, a national legal group that promotes conservative and libertarian judicial candidates who emphasize limited government.

But he comes from a liberal family.

His brother, Matthew, was the Democratic candidate for S.C. attorney general in 2010. His father, Terry Richardson, is a Democratic trial lawyer who has sued tobacco and asbestos companies and their millionaire executives, President Trump’s fellow business moguls. Terry Richardson joked Thursday, “I’d never be nominated to the federal bench by Trump!”

But Jay Richardson, who successfully prosecuted Charleston church massacre murderer Dylann Roof, does have fans in Democratic circles.

Richardson bonded with the relatives of Roof’s victims, Jennifer PInckney — the widow of the late Democratic state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those slain — wrote the Judiciary Committee. No one is “more compassionate, caring and committed to justice than Jay Richardson,” Pinckney wrote.

Although Trump repeatedly has criticized the FBI, Richardson has extensive experience working with FBI agents in high-profile trials.

Those FBI-related investigations include Roof’s death penalty trial as well as cases involving would-be killers and child predators on the “dark Web,” and the MS-13 and Hells Angels gangs.

“He is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May, who worked with Richardson on fraud cases involving the Irish Travelers. “What you will find is a thoughtful analysis of all issues. He just wants to apply the law and get it right.”

Still, Richardson has stumbled a few times.

In 2014, U.S. Judge Terry Wooten refused to go along with a no-prison plea-bargain agreement that Richardson had made with lawyers representing former Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts, who took a bribe. Wooten said Metts violated a position of public trust and deserved prison.

In 2015, Richardson was scolded by 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Barbara Keenan — a future colleague — during Jack Parker’s appeal of his gambling conviction. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Parker.

Appeals courts serve “as kind of a Supreme Court” for the states under their regional jurisdiction, said law professor Tobias.

Richardson’s 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction covers North and South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.

However, the job comes with some security.

It is lifetime appointment that now pays $220,600 a year. As a 4th Circuit judge, Richardson, who could be sworn in as early as next week, also can hire up to four law clerks and a secretary.