What we know about the federal judge from Florida who struck down CDC mask mandate for travelers

Airlines and other public transportation no longer need to require passengers to mask up, based on a Monday ruling by Florida native Federal Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle.

Less than two years after her appointment, Kimball Mizelle has upended the travel industry as airlines, buses, subways and rideshare companies scramble to change their rules. Here's what we know about the Lakeland-raised judge.

Florida Middle District Judge Kimball Mizelle was confirmed to the lifetime position of federal judge by the Republican-controlled Senate in the weeks after President Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection. She was named to the bar in 2012. At age 33, she was the youngest Trump-nominated federal judge.

Related: Federal judge voids US mask mandate for planes, public transportation

Federal Court Judge and Lakeland native Kathryn Kimball Mizelle with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for whom she clerked.
Federal Court Judge and Lakeland native Kathryn Kimball Mizelle with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for whom she clerked.

During the nomination process, the nonpartisan American Bar Association declared her to be not qualified, citing her lack of experience in court.

The Republican senators who voted for her pushed back against the assertion, lauding her work as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and in the private sector at law firm Jones Day, which at the time was representing the Pennsylvania Republican Party against private lawsuits and a suit from the Democratic Party regarding voting rights. The law firm later represented Trump in a suit seeking to overturn election results.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., voted for Kimball Mizelle, while Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., did not vote as he was quarantining after a COVID-19 exposure.

More: Airlines have dropped their mask mandates. But where are masks still required?

And: Mask mandate and Southwest Florida airports: What you need to know

Education

Kathryn Kimball Mizelle graduated at the top of her class in 2012 from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
Kathryn Kimball Mizelle graduated at the top of her class in 2012 from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

Kimball Mizelle graduated from Lakeland Christian School in 2005 first in her class. In 2009, she attained her bachelor's from Covenant College, a private Christian liberal arts college on Lookout Mountain in Dade County, Ga. She then earned her law degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law, graduating in 2012, again first in her class.

Kimball Mizelle went on to clerk for several judges, including Judge James S. Moody Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida — where she now serves as a judge herself in Tampa — and for Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court from 2018 to 2019.

She also served as a prosecutor in the tax division of the Department of Justice, counsel to the Associate Attorney General and special assistant to the U.S. Attorney in Northern Virginia. Kimball Mizelle went on to practice private law at Jones Day in Washington, D.C., from 2019 until her appointment to the bench in 2020.

Her lifetime position of federal judge comes with a $223,400 salary.

Washington, D.C., attorney Kathryn Kimball Mizelle was nominated by President Donald Trump to become a U.S. district judge in the Middle District of Florida. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in late 2020. Mizelle is Trump's youngest nominee to the federal bench.
Washington, D.C., attorney Kathryn Kimball Mizelle was nominated by President Donald Trump to become a U.S. district judge in the Middle District of Florida. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in late 2020. Mizelle is Trump's youngest nominee to the federal bench.

Kimball Mizelle has been a member of the conservative Federalist Society since 2012, the year she was admitted to the Florida Bar and is listed as a contributor on its website.

“I joined the Federalist Society upon graduation because I wanted to continue to have the opportunity to grow as a lawyer by being exposed to events where speakers would advocate for opposing views,” she said in a written statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee during her confirmation hearings.

The Federalist Society was founded in 1982 as “a group of conservatives and libertarians" dedicated to promoting “limited, constitutional government; and the rule of law in protecting individual freedom and traditional values.”

Kimball Mizelle is married to Chad Mizelle, another Florida native. Mizelle, who at the time of their marriage served as acting general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, joined law firm Jones Day's Government Regulation Practice department in January 2021. He is based in the D.C. and Miami offices.

Before she worked for DHS, Mizelle served as associate counsel to Trump from 2018 to 2019 and as counsel to the deputy attorney general at the Department of Justice from 2017 to 2018.

In other Florida locations:

Appointment

Before her appointment to the bench, Kimball Mizelle had never tried a case in court as a lead attorney and had only eight years of experience as an attorney, which led the nonpartisan American Bar Association to declare her not qualified for the position.

The ABA wrote in a Sept. 8 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that “a nominee to the federal bench ordinarily should have at least 12 years’ experience in the practice of law." It added that Kimball Mizelle "was admitted to practice law in Florida on September 27, 2012. This represents a rather marked departure from the 12-year minimum.”

The ABA did point out that of Kimball Mizelle’s four distinguished federal clerkships, one, a one-year clerkship, was in the trial court.

“That year, plus her 10 months at a reputable law firm and approximately three years in government practice translates into five years of experience in the trial courts. We have taken into account the nominee’s experience in federal grand jury proceedings, which are non-adversarial and do not take place before a judge. In each instance those proceedings resulted in the defendant’s agreement to a plea of guilty with no trial,” the letter read.

“A substantial majority of the Standing Committee has determined that Ms. Mizelle is ‘Not Qualified'," the organization wrote.

In response to her questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., then-ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kimball Mizelle said she had tried only two cases to verdict, once serving as co-lead counsel in law school on a case as a “certified legal intern” at the State Attorney’s Office and as associate counsel to the lead counsel in the other.

She told Feinstein she had appeared in court approximately 40 times over the course of her career as an attorney, arguing on behalf of the Department of Justice.

However, she never served in civil or criminal court as lead or co-counsel.

According to Matthew Cimento, a spokesman for the ABA, which typically helps administrations vet candidates, it was rare during the Trump administration for the ABA to oppose a nominee. Just 10 of the 326 Trump nominees came back not qualified.

Kimball Mizelle told the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, that her work in the government and in private practice had provided her with sufficient experience.

"While at Jones Day, I have represented companies in both high stakes civil litigation as well as significant criminal defense cases, including the defense of two companies in a $3 billion healthcare fraud prosecution," she wrote in her response to the questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee. "These experiences, along with my service in the Associate Attorney General’s Office and as a law clerk at every level of the federal judiciary, have prepared me to be a fair and effective federal district court judge.”

In materials provided to the committee prior to her confirmation hearings, she declined to answer questions put forth on her opinions regarding the federal government's ability to regulate businesses in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"As a judicial nominee, it would be improper for me to offer my personal view on any issue that is likely to come before a court, including the authority of the federal government to impose safety standards on businesses," she wrote.

President Donald Trump in September 2020 nominated Kathryn Kimball Mizelle to be a U.S. District judge in the Tampa-based Middle District of Florida. The Lakeland native was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
President Donald Trump in September 2020 nominated Kathryn Kimball Mizelle to be a U.S. District judge in the Tampa-based Middle District of Florida. The Lakeland native was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Kimball Mizelle's nomination was put before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2020 by Trump. She was confirmed in a 49-41 vote along party lines.

Rubio applauded her appointment to the bench, calling her a "highly qualified nominee" and lauding her service "in various legal roles both in the public and private sector."

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Mask ruling

Kimball Mizelle on Monday declared the Biden Administration's mask mandate for airline and other public transit travelers an overreach by the Centers for Disease Control.

The mask mandate passed by the Biden Administration in January 2021 required people to wear masks in airports and on certain modes of public transportation, including many trains, airplanes and intercity buses, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The mandate was based on a 1944 Public Health Services Act that declared the director of the CDC could issue regulations "as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases."

The disease caused by the coronavirus mainly travels through microscopic droplets and particles exhaled by infected persons, according to the CDC; wearing a mask traps those droplets and reduces risk of infection in others.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the White House stood in opposition to the ruling. "This is obviously a disappointing decision," she said. "The CDC continues recommending wearing a mask in public transit."

The mask mandate had been set to expire Monday but the CDC announced last week that it would keep it in place until May 3. The delay would allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus that is responsible for the majority of cases in the country.

It was the mask mandate's fifth extension despite repeated requests from airlines and other travel industry officials to ease restrictions.

Basing her ruling on the definition of cleaning, Kimball Mizelle concluded that the CDC could require or order cleanings, fumigations or more, but not preventative sanitary measures.

"Wearing a mask cleans nothing," Kimball Mizelle wrote in her ruling. As such, she concluded, "the Mask Mandate falls outside of" federal regulations.

Every major U.S. airline has now made face masks optional for passengers and employees. That includes Delta, United, American and Southwest as well as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, and newer airlines like Breeze and Avelo.

Kimberly C. Moore and Gary White of the Lakeland Ledger contributed. USA TODAY also contributed.

Kate Cimini is an investigative journalist covering Florida. Share your story at (239) 207-9369 or email kcimini@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Federal judge CDC mask mandate: Kathryn Kimball Mizelle from Florida struck down mandate