On Monday, a Republican-appointed federal judge struck down the Biden administration's regulation requiring travelers to wear masks on trains, airlines, and other forms of mass transportation. Major network news broadcasts largely failed to include crucial details about the situation — namely that the judge has already been the subject of controversy owing to her lack of qualifications, the timing of her appointment, and her personal ties to the Trump administration.
In a bizarrely written ruling that appears to have been written explicitly to achieve a policy outcome, U.S. District Court Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle engaged in a feat of semantics by which the government’s legal authority over “sanitation” would not include keeping things clean, only the act of cleaning them when already sullied. “Wearing a mask cleans nothing. At most, it traps virus droplets,” Judge Mizelle wrote. (By such terminology, Mizelle thus rejected the ability of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent and control the spread of a disease.)
The Biden administration has indicated that it could potentially appeal the ruling, if the CDC determines that the mandate was still necessary. Such a move would likely also be well within the political mainstream, with a new Associated Press-NORC poll finding that 56% of Americans are in favor of requiring masks on mass transportation versus only 24% who are opposed. (The poll was conducted days before Mizelle’s ruling.)
Mizelle’s peculiar reasoning in her decision to discard effective public health measures should have been a national scandal. But, instead, mainstream coverage of the ruling simply treated it matter-of-factly.
On Monday’s edition of ABC World News Tonight, ABC News correspondent Eva Pilgrim briefly noted, “The decision by the judge, appointed by former president Donald Trump, signals another sweeping change for Americans,” in a report noting that the CDC continues to recommend wearing masks in mass transit in light of the BA.2 subvariant. NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams also referred to Mizelle simply as “a Trump appointee” during a brief segment on NBC Nightly News.
During Monday’s edition of CBS Evening News, anchor Norah O’Donnell failed to even mention Judge Mizelle’s connection to Trump, stating simply that “a federal judge in Florida today ruled that the CDC exceeded its authority and failed to follow proper rulemaking.” The report by CBS News correspondent Nikki Battiste included a useful comment from infectious disease specialist Dr. Celine Gounder, who continued to advise plane travelers to wear a mask.
The network coverage on Tuesday night focused largely on the fact that medical experts are distressed by the ruling, citing continued dangers from contagious variants of the virus, and that immunocompromised travelers and children too young to get vaccinated are now at risk when traveling. But only NBC Nightly News noted that the judge in the case had been appointed by Trump — a fact that was neglected by both CBS and now ABC, which had included that information the night before. And even NBC failed to explain any further details about the controversial judge in question.
The problem with this coverage, which simply describes Mizelle as “a federal judge” or even as a “Trump appointee,” is that it ignores crucial details about the obvious personal and political biases driving the ruling. In short, the ruling was handed down by an unqualified and extremely partisan political appointee with significant personal connections to the Trump administration and family.
The conservative legal activist turned Trump-appointed judge dismantling public health measures
Mizelle, who is just 35 years old, was confirmed to a lifetime appointment on the federal bench on November 20, 2020 on a party-line vote held two weeks after Trump had lost reelection. Mizelle was confirmed despite the American Bar Association (ABA) rating her as “not qualified” for her nomination, due to a lack of professional legal experience. (She was also confirmed despite the fact that the president appointing her was actively engaged in an attempt to overturn the election and illegally install himself as president.) The ABA recommends that federal judicial nominees have at least 12 years of experience, while Mizelle had only graduated from law school and passed the bar exam eight years earlier. The ABA further noted that Mizelle had “not tried a case, civil or criminal, as lead or co-counsel.”
Mizelle instead built her résumé on close ties to Republicans, including in private practice at Jones Day, a firm known for its links to Republican politics, along with a position in the Trump-era Justice Department, clerkships for conservative federal judges including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and a membership in the right-wing Federalist Society.
Judge Mizelle is also married to Chad Mizelle, a former general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration. During his time at the DHS, Chad Mizelle levied personal attacks against the Government Accountability Office’s determination that the Trump administration had illegally filled top positions at DHS. (Chad Mizelle is also reportedly employed by Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner’s shady investment firm Affinity Partners, which seems designed to help the disgraced former president and his family cash in on the deferential policies they pursued with foreign autocrats while in office.)
Chad Mizelle has also been publicly described as an “ally” of Trump adviser Stephen Miller, a white nationalist who played a public role in the administration’s efforts to illegally overturn the 2020 election. Miller applauded Judge Mizelle’s ruling Monday night, telling readers on Twitter to “please vote Republican” in order to stop more mandates.
In an ironic twist, Fox News was one major news outlet that actually compiled a long list of complaints about Mizelle’s qualifications in the context of an online article headlined “Liberal reporters attack judge's age, background after she tossed federal mask mandate for public transport.”
The article seemingly gloated that “left-leaning reporters melted down” at Mizelle’s anti-mask ruling. But even as the article collected a variety of these complaints, the author did not make any attempt to rebut the central charge that Mizelle was an unqualified, partisan activist — instead, the entire point here seems to be the right-wing national pastime of “owning the libs.”