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Since taking office, President Trump has moved to reshape the judiciary and swiftly. Trump’s picks have been overwhelmingly white and male, so the nomination of Fernando Rodriguez Jr. to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas stands out as his first Latino judicial pick. While several of Trump’s judicial nominees have been embroiled in controversy, legal experts and former associates say Rodriguez is a safe, qualified choice to serve in his native Texas.
District court judges serve lifetime terms, and can potentially wield enormous power. In 2015, Judge Andrew Hanen of the Southern District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction that stopped the Obama Administration from implementing its Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) plan, a move that was ultimately left in place by the Supreme Court. More recently, in January a federal judge in California ordered the reinstatement of DACA, which provides deportation relief to undocumented youth.
The Southern District of Texas, where Rodriguez would serve, encompasses such cities as Houston, Galveston, Corpus Christi, and Laredo.
Rodriguez was born in this district in 1969, in Harlingen, a city near the Mexican border. After graduating from Yale University in 1991, he spent several years with Teach For America, teaching at an inner-city school in Houston. In 1997, he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, and went on to become a partner in the Dallas office of Baker Botts. Since 2010, he has worked for the International Justice Mission, a nonprofit Christian organization focused on combatting human trafficking.
Benny Agosto Jr., partner at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto, and Aziz in Houston, told NBC that “Rodriguez has a great pedigree. He has the eastern education but also he is someone who has been through different life experiences, that maybe some big-city folks have not.”
Agosto believes that Rodriguez’ experience will translate into a successful judicial career. “He has a big-firm work ethic, and based on my personal vetting, he is well-respected.”
“He is a really smart lawyer,” said Tim Durst, partner-in-charge at the Dallas office of Baker Botts. “Fernando was a wonderful colleague who was used to dealing with complicated, sophisticated issues. He brought a lot to the table, and he was a great teammate.” At Baker Botts, Rodriguez worked on corporate commercial litigation cases, representing a steel supplier in a federal breach of contract case, and defending a Costa Rica partnership in a breach of contract claim over the building of a hospital.
According to his judicial questionnaire, between 2010 and 2013 Rodriguez served as the International Justice Mission’s Field Office Director in Bolivia, where he worked with law enforcement officials to secure 26 convictions for child sex abuse and trafficking. Since 2013, he has been IJM’s Field Office Director in the Dominican Republic, where has helped convict 23 criminals. In both countries, he also worked to train and educate local police and justice officials on trafficking issues.
John Malcom, vice president of the Institute for Constitutional Government at the Heritage Foundation, cited Rodriguez’ work with the International Justice Mission as evidence of his character. “He went from a preeminent Dallas firm to working in a very dangerous environment. The people who engage in trafficking are very violent individuals, and the fact that Rodriguez has relocated out of the country to take them on, and to bring perpetrators to justice, is remarkable.”
Rodriguez's nomination is significant because just as in the legal field, Latinos are under-represented in the judiciary. Although Latinos are 18 percent of the U.S. population, statistics from the Federal Judicial Center show that that Hispanics account for 60 out of the 552 active district court judges nationwide.
Rodriguez interviewed with the Federal Judicial Nomination Committee in April 2017, and then met with both senators from Texas and the Department of Justice that May. He was officially nominated in September 2017 – but is awaiting final confirmation.
“I think Democrats are doing all they can to slow the process,” Malcolm said, “even for highly qualified, non-controversial candidates like Rodriguez.”
The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has given Rodriguez a rating of “Qualified” for his seat in the Southern District of Texas.
Erica V. Mason, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association said that her group had not taken a position on Rodriguez’ nomination. “We have a robust vetting procedure for judicial nominees,” she said. “But we do not affirmatively vet a candidate unless they ask us to do so, and Mr. Rodriguez has not.”
“We are always encouraged when Latinos are given the opportunity to excel at the federal district level,” Mason continued. “Rodriguez is the first Hispanic lawyer that this administration has put forth out of dozens of nominees, so it is a first step; we would like to see more inclusion of diverse nominees on the federal bench.”
There appears to be little in Rodriguez’ background to suggest potential controversy. In 2008, he donated $500 to John McCain’s presidential campaign. His LinkedIn profile lists his college activities as belonging to the Yale Debate Association and the Campus Crusade for Christ, while at law school he was a member of the Christian Legal Society.
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) said that his organization has not taken a position on Rodriguez’ nomination; they typically do not do so for District Court nominees.
“It is a bit complicated; we have not taken a position on Rodriguez, in part, because based on what we see, he is conservative but not so far out of the judicial mainstream,” Saenz explained. “Still, Trump nominees need to be vetted very, very carefully – which is more of a reflection of who is doing the nominating than it is on the nominee.” Saenz cited Trump’s “sh—hole countries” remarks and his comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, based on his Mexican-American heritage, as evidence of Trump’s racial bias and prejudices.
Asked if Rodriguez’ involvement with religious organizations could potentially be viewed as a red flag for progressives, Saenz responded, “No – I don’t think involvement in religious activities or groups should disqualify someone from serving as a judge. That would only be an issue if the person had a record showing that they could not separate the law from their religious beliefs, or if there were anything that indicated that they would take positions contrary to the law and civil rights.”
With his “unique background” and work for “worthy causes,” the legal blog The Vetting Room opined that “all signs point to a comfortable nomination for Rodriguez.”