Paul Watford

United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

  • Court Circuit Court

On May 21, 2012, the Senate confirmed Paul Watford to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Watford clerked for Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He spent 3 years as an Assistant United States Attorney and also worked in private practice before joining the Ninth Circuit.

As Senator Leahy explained in a statement prior to Judge Watford’s confirmation, Judge Watford’s nomination to the Ninth Circuit had broad bipartisan support: “Mr. Watford’s nomination has support from across the political spectrum. Daniel Collins, a partner at Munger Tolles who clerked for Justice Scalia and who served in the Bush administration as Associate Deputy Attorney General, has said that Paul Watford is ‘incredibly intelligent and has solid integrity and great judgment.’ Conservative law professor Orin Kerr called him ‘extremely bright, a moderate, and very much a ‘lawyer’s lawyer,’ concluding in his online post, ‘I hope he will be confirmed.’”


Paul Watford was born in 1967 in Garden Grove, California. He received his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1989 and his J.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1994 where he received the Order of Coif and was editor of the law review. Prior to attending law school he worked as a legal interviewer with the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Lawyer Referral Services.

After law school, Mr. Watford clerked first for Judge Kozinski, a Ronald Reagan-appointee to the Ninth Circuit, and then for Justice Ginsburg. Following his clerkships, he worked as an associate at Munger, Tolles and Olson for a year, and then worked as an Assistant United States Attorney for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California from 1997 to 2000. In 2000, he joined Sidley & Austin’s Los Angeles office where he worked for a year before returning to Munger, Tolles in 2001. He made partner in 2003.

President Obama nominated Watford to the Ninth Circuit on October 17, 2011. Watford was confirmed on May 21, 2012 and received his commission on May 22, 2012.

Legal Experience

While serving as an Assistant United States Attorney at the United States Attorney’s Office, Watford worked in the Criminal Division and the Major Frauds Section. He handled a wide range of criminal prosecutions including drug offenses, immigration offenses, firearms trafficking, robbery, and fraud.  In one representative case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Watford represented the government against a defendant who asserted a duress defense to eight counts of bank robbery. The Ninth Circuit found that the defendant had not satisfied the immediacy requirement of duress.

At Munger, Tolles, Watford focused on appellate litigation in areas such as intellectual property, securities, business contracts, antitrust, products liability, and employment law.  Nearly all of Watford’s private practice involved civil litigation, typically commercial disputes. His clients were primarily large companies, but he also represented law firms, business executives, municipal governments, and non-profit organizations.

Watford has co-authored 20 Supreme Court briefs. He was among the attorneys who represented numerous civil rights groups—including the ACLU, MALDEF, the National Immigration Law Center, and the Asian American Justice Center—in their amicus brief supporting respondents who challenged Arizona S.B. 1070, a controversial law that gave state police officers the right to stop and arrest people believed to be illegal immigrants. The Supreme Court agreed with the amici that many sections of S.B. 1070 were preempted by federal law. Watford also co-authored an amicus brief on behalf of doctors, clinical ethicists, and other medical professionals in support of death row inmates who challenged Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol. Though the petitioners lost their case, the medical professionals’ brief was cited by Justice Stevens in his concurrence which expressed substantial concern about the death penalty. Watford also assisted with a brief for minority business owners as amici in a case about what actions Congress may take to remedy racial discrimination. The case was later dismissed as improvidently granted.

Judicial Service

Judge Watford has authored a number of decisions that were appealed to the Supreme Court. In an en banc Ninth Circuit opinion, Judge Watford wrote that a Los Angeles law that required hotels to present guest records to police violated the Fourth Amendment. The plaintiff hotel owners did not challenge their obligation to keep the records, but argued that they could not be required to turn them over to police without any justification and without an opportunity for judicial review. Judge Watford held that the lack of procedural safeguards rendered the law facially unconstitutional. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court which affirmed the opinion written by Judge Watford.

The Supreme Court has also adopted reasoning that Judge Watford set forth in dissent. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Judge Watford dissented and argued that a city’s sign ordinance that established different restrictions for different types of signs—including ideological signs, political signs, and temporary directional signs (like the plaintiff’s church meeting signs), among other categories—was an unconstitutional content-based regulation that failed to withstand strict scrutiny. Upon appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court unanimously agreed with Judge Watford and struck down the ordinance.

Judge Watford joined an opinion holding that the Natural Gas Act did not preempt state antitrust laws, so plaintiffs gas purchasers could proceed with their claim. The Supreme Court upheld the decision by a vote of 7-2.

Judge Watford was involved in two cases that the Supreme Court agreed to hear in the 2015-2016 term. In one case, Judge Watford joined a decision restricting the use of binding arbitration agreements. The Ninth Circuit panel held that an arbitration clause in an employment agreement was both procedurally and substantively unconscionable because it was not negotiated, gave the employer the right to select an arbitrator, established a shortened, six-month statute of limitations, and included a fee-shifting provision that would chill employees pursuit of their claims against the employer. The case was set for argument before the Supreme Court for the 2015-2016 term but later settled.

A second case before the Supreme Court illustrates Judge Watford’s principled application of precedent. In United States v. Bryant, the Ninth Circuit was asked to consider whether a person could be convicted under a federal statute that punishes “habitual offenders”—those that already have two convictions—if one of the prior convictions was obtained in a tribal court where the defendant lacked counsel. Judge Watford concurred with the majority that a Ninth Circuit case from 1989 required the court to hold that the tribal court conviction was insufficient to support the repeat offender conviction. But Judge Watford expressed dissatisfaction with the precedent which implied that “tribal court convictions are inherently suspect.” He noted, “Given [a] circuit split and the lack of clarity in this area of Sixth Amendment law, the Supreme Court’s intervention seems warranted.” In December, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Professional and Academic Activities

Judge Watford has been active in the Los Angeles legal community outside of his professional practice. He served for six years as a member of the Magistrate Judge Merit Selection Panel for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which vets candidates for federal magistrate judge positions. He also served for two years as an Appellate Lawyer Representative to the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference. Judge Watford served as a board member and treasurer of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County and a board member of the Federal Bar Association, Los Angeles Chapter. He was a member of the American Bar Association’s Amicus Curiae Committee which reviews all amicus briefs submitted on behalf of the ABA.

Watford has participated in educational panels at bar associations and California universities on topics such as appellate practice, writing legal briefs, and general law firm practice. He has given several presentations on the impact various Supreme Court justices have had on the Court. He has also taught a course on judicial opinion writing at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law.