On March 18, 2017, Judge Daniel Breen, a federal district court judge in the Western District of Tennessee, assumed senior status. A few months later, on July 13, 2017, President Trump nominated Mark Norris, current Majority Leader of the Tennessee State Senate, to fill the vacancy.
Alliance for Justice does not customarily produce the same extensive research reports on potential district court judges that we produce for circuit court nominees, but in this case we have done so because Norris’s record makes him an extreme outlier even among Trump nominees. Based on his record, particularly his tenure as a state senator, it is overwhelmingly clear that Mark Norris should not serve in a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.
Norris has spread offensive anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric, sought to undermine the rights of immigrants in Tennessee, and vigorously fought against LGBTQ equality and the right of women to decide whether to have an abortion. He has undertaken efforts to make it harder for African-American children to receive a quality education, made it more difficult for African-Americans, the elderly, and students to exercise their right to vote, undercut workers’ rights and protections, and made it more difficult to hold corporations accountable when they break the law.
As a state senator, Norris has repeatedly demonstrated a disdain for the Constitution. Despite taking an oath “to support the Constitution of [Tennessee] and of the United States,” Norris has on many occasions supported unconstitutional actions, including the following:
- Norris filed a lawsuit trying to block the federal government from settling refugees in Tennessee, which even the state’s Republican attorney general and Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department said was baseless.
- Norris was instrumental in passing a law enhancing criminal sentences for undocumented immigrants in Tennessee, despite the fact that courts have struck down similar measures.
- Norris supported legislation that directly conflicted with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges 135 S. Ct. 1732 (2015). Indeed, as one supporter of the bill noted, the legislation was passed to “compel courts to side with late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his dissent.”
- Ignoring legal advice from the Republican state attorney general that Obergefell applied to state divorce and child custody proceedings, Norris tried to intervene in a matter in order to prevent a state court from applying Obergefell. Not only was Norris’s legal position in direct conflict with Supreme Court precedent, the judge in the case noted that Norris’s actions “constitute[d] an attempt to bypass the separation of powers provided for by the Tennessee Constitution.”
- Norris supported requirements that abortion providers must have hospital admitting privileges and abortion clinics must meet hospital-level surgical standards. The state dropped its defense to these unconstitutional laws after the Supreme Court struck down nearly-identical Texas laws in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
- Norris supported the “Tennessee Infants Protection Act,” which bans abortion after 20 weeks, ignoring the Republican state attorney general who advised that the bill was “constitutionally suspect.”
As a federal judge, Norris would be charged with faithfully applying Supreme Court precedent and federal laws. Given that Norris seems unable to uphold the oath he took as a state senator to uphold the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, AFJ has grave concerns about his willingness to respect the Constitution as a judge.
Finally, with regard to judicial temperament, there are serious concerns about Norris’s statements and behavior. Norris has made ignorant and offensive comments about Muslims, suggesting that being Muslim was synonymous with being a terrorist. He has bemoaned that, among refugees, there are too “few Syrian Christians.” He has shown a disturbing practice of discounting facts that conflict with his ideological biases: for instance, dismissing analysts who explained why there were not more Christian refugees from Syria. He has justified his anti-refugee position on an alleged public health risk based on evidence not from a reputable health source, but from Breitbart News. He has also argued that federal refugee resettlement imposes financial burdens on the state of Tennessee, using figures even the Republican governor has strongly refuted.
Moreover, Norris regularly dismisses those who disagree with him, a disturbing trait for a potential federal judge. When Muslims in Tennessee raised concerns about the state’s treatment of Muslims, Norris dismissed their concerns, saying “I understand that there are some groups that are paid to foment that kind of unrest.” When Norris led an effort to give election officials the discretion to require proof of citizenship to vote, opponents argued that this would result in “racial profiling.” Again, rather than attempting to address these legitimate concerns, Norris was indifferent, saying “I don’t think the members feel there is a profiling concern here at all.”
Alliance for Justice strongly opposes this nominee.