Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Judicial Winning: Greg Katsas

Before becoming a judge, Greg Katsas faithfully served as a top lawyer in both the Department of Justice and the White House, and he also built a distinguished career in private practice. After Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Judge Katsas is one of President Trump’s most consequential judicial appointments, sitting on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

One of Judge Katsas’s most notable opinions to date, however, came from a case in which he sat “by designation” — a process by which judges can be assigned to a case in another court to help lighten that court’s load — on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

In Trichell v. Midland Credit Management, Judge Katsas demonstrated a value that has become all too rare in modern years: judicial humility. On its face, the dispute appeared to be about debt collection practices under federal law. But Judge Katsas, a committed originalist who clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, recognized that the real issue in the case was the appropriate role of the judiciary itself.

The case involved two men who had been delinquent on debt for many years. A debt collector sent letters to the men, seeking to collect on the debt, and the men sued by alleging that the letters were misleading. The only problem? The men were not actually misled. They had merely received the letters.

Judge Katsas, writing for a 2–1 panel of judges, looked to the history of Article III of the Constitution, which governs the judicial branch. Hearkening back to the words of James Madison in 1787, Judge Katsas explained the Founders’ conception of the judiciary’s limited power. And rather than a dispute in which a plaintiff was complaining of some actual harm, Trichell centered on unharmed individuals “tak[ing] offense that a private party has violated” federal law — “an injury that is . . . abstract as opposed to concrete,” in Judge Katsas’s words.

In the end, Judge Katsas determined that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the case in federal court, meaning that the Constitution does not authorize federal courts to hear such disputes. This analysis of the standing question is not only correct as a matter of originalism, but also representative of a broader, meaningful point.

If people could have their day in court every time something offended them — even if they suffered no actual harm — the deluge of cases would serve as an impediment to the operation of a functioning court system. Moreover, the requirement of a concrete injury confines courts to their proper function under the Constitution: resolution of “cases” or “controversies,” nothing more.

Judge Katsas has shown time and again that he can be expected to follow the law, and it is good news that he (usually) sits on a court — the D.C. Circuit — that has long played a key part in deciding some of the biggest disputes related to our government. Fortunately, he should be on the bench for a long time to come.

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