08 April 2023

Kate Comerford Todd:
a Comerford lawyer in
the Trump White House

Kate Comerford Todd, born Kathryn Louise Comerford … she missed out being nominated by Donald Trump to the US Supreme Court

Patrick Comerford

Donald Trump’s appearance in court in New York earlier this week reminded me that the former White House associate counsel Kate Comerford Todd was listed by the former president in September 2020 as one of his potential nominees for the seat in Supreme Court seat made vacant by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

After the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the White House included Kate Comerford Todd on a list of four potential nominees. Todd (then 45) was the only lawyer mentioned as being on Trump’s shortlist who had not previously held a judicial position. Eventually, however, Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett for the vacant seat on 26 September 2020.

Kate Comerford Todd teaches law of federal courts at George Washington University Law School, is the Managing Partner of Ellis George Cipollone’s new Washington office, a public member of the Administrative Conference of the United States, and is known for her conservative and libertarian views and her links with the Federalist Society, a right-wing conservative think-tanks. While working in the White House, she helped vet federal judges for nomination and advised Donald Trump and his staff on a wide range of legal and constitutional issues.

As Katherine Comerford, she graduated with distinction with a degree in government, history, and international relations from Cornell University, and received her law degree (JD) magna cum laude at Harvard Law School, where she was also executive editor of the Harvard Law Review.

She was a law clerk 2000-2001 to Justice Clarence Thomas – who was nominated by George HW Bush and who was the only black member of the Supreme Court – and for Judge J Michael Luttig of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Clarence Thomas is the most conservative and right-wing justice on the US Spreme Court, and he too was in the news this week with renewed calls for his impeachment after it was revealed that for two decades he has accepted undisclosed luxury gifts from Harlan Crow, a Republican megadonor and property billionaire.

She is the former senior vice-president and chief counsel of the United States Chamber Litigation Center, the litigation arm of the US Chamber of Commerce. She was a partner in the appellate, litigation, and communications practices of Wiley, Rein & Fielding in Washington DC, where she represented businesses in federal and state litigation and regulatory matters.

She also teaches the law of federal courts at the George Washington University Law School, and was also an adjunct assistant professor of Constitutional law at Cornell-in-Washington, a residential multidisciplinary programme that is part of Cornell University.

Trump appointed Kate Comerford Todd deputy assistant and deputy counsel to the president in 2019, and she helped navigate Trump’s White House through a thicket of legal issues.

Kate Comerford Todd was born Kathryn Louise Comerford, a daughter of Louise and James Comerford, who live in Peru, Indiana. Her father retired as an assistant chief of the Peru Fire Department later became the director of the Miami County 911 Services. Her mother Louise has worked in the Peru Township Trustee’s Office, where she helped determine eligibility for public assistance.

James Comerford traces his ancestry back to Ireland and to his great-great-grandfather, John Joseph Comerford (1826-1896), who married Ann Lawlor (1828-1917). They were the parents of John Lawrence Comerford (1860–1915), who married Rose McKendry (1863-1933).

Their son, Clarence Joseph Comerford (1890-1947), was born on 2 January 1890, in Deer Creek Township, Miami, Indiana. He married Ethel Fern Lesh on 25 April 1911, in Miami, Indiana, and they were the parents of four sons and two daughters. They lived in Miami, Indiana, United States in 1940. He died in 1947, and was buried in Saint Charles Catholic Cemetery, Peru, Indiana.

Those four sons included J Paul Comerford (1922-2012). He was born on 22 June 1922 in Bunker Hill, Miami County, Indiana. He married Jean (Shepler) Comerford in 1942 and they celebrated 51 years of marriage before she died in 1993. He married his second wife, Mary Lou (Landrum), in 1997. J Paul Comerford died on 17 March 2012, aged 89, in Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana, and was buried in Springdale Cemetery, Bunker Hill, Indiana.

Paul Comerford was educated at Bunker Hill High School and during World War II he was in the US Army Air Corps and the Eighth Air Force. He was a farmer and also worked at the Bunker Hill Elevator and Lumber Company, including many years as manager. He was an Emergency Medical Technician for the Bunker Hill EMS. He was a member of the Bunker Hill Town Board and Board President for many years. He also active in the Republican Party and attended the First Church of the Nazarene in Peru. His sisters included was Sister Jane Ann Comerford of Clarksville.

Paul Comerford’s grand-daughter, Kathryn Louise Comerford, married Gordon Dwyer Todd, also a lawyer in Washington, on 13 March 2004 by the Revd Franklyn M McAfee at Saint Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Great Falls, Virginia.

Gordon Todd has worked at the Justice Department as the counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights. He graduated cum laude from Princeton and received his law degree from the University of Virginia. His parents, Janice and William Todd, lived in Houston, Texas. His father was a financial manager in the treasury department at ExxonMobil and his mother chaired the docent programme at the Rienzi Centre for European Decorative Arts at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Lawyers who were close to Kate Comerford Todd and familiar with her work describe her as exceptionally smart and hard-working, a principled and independent-minded attorney whose originalist view of the Constitution are in line with other conservative jurists who have served on the court.

‘When I went to Kate with a question, I always found that I got really good advice, really thoughtful advice. She’s just really smart,’ said Will Consovoy, who worked at the same law firm as Todd. When he would give her his work to review, ‘It always came back much better than when I gave it to her. She was such a great sounding board.’

Donald Trump and Melania Trump with Kate Comerford Todd (left), Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, her husband Jesse Barrett, and Justice Clarence Thomas at the White House in 2020 after attending Barrett’s swearing-in ceremony as Supreme Court Associate Justice (Photograph: White House)

Adam Mortara, a lawyer and conservative legal activist who has known Todd for more than 20 years and also clerked for Clarence Thomas, recalled how Todd seemed to take to heart the justice’s admonition that backing down on an issue of principle is a ‘pathway to personal destruction.’

‘I think the first person that I ever met, other than Justice Thomas, who I realized fully embodied that principle is Kate,’ he said ‘I’ve never seen her back down on an issue of principle. I’ve never seen her compromise her principles.’ He added, ‘On issues of right or wrong, or on issues of what the law is or isn’t, there is no moving her.’

He described one conversation early in which she explained to him the intricacies of a legal doctrine in which courts afford deference to federal agency interpretation of statutes. After Mortara said it sounded like a silly, wrong-headed principle, Todd told him the doctrine was supported by Justice Antonin Scalia – a conservative stalwart on the court for decades – and asked whether that would make a difference.

It was effectively a test, Mortara said, to see if his instincts could be rattled by the ‘800-pound gorilla of Justice Scalia not agreeing with me.’

‘I remember her teaching me in that moment, by example, and by her words, that you have to figure things out for yourself,’ Mortara said. ‘One thing I learned from that, and it’s not even specific to any issue, is she’s an independent thinker who will figure things out for herself.’

‘She is absolutely brilliant,’ said Helgi Walker, a partner at the Gibson Dunn law firm who also served as a Thomas law clerk and as an associate White House counsel to Bush. ‘She is thoughtful, caring, considerate. She always tries to get it right, no matter what she’s doing.’

Todd was viewed as the favourite of White House lawyers, but there were concerns that the confirmation process would not be as smooth for a first-time jurist, according to people familiar with the situation.

Her lack of prior experience as a judge could have been a point of contention during any confirmation process. Her career, though a diverse blend of private practice and government work, had probably not produced some of the high-profile moments of the other Supreme Court contenders. At the White House, for instance, she helped vet federal judges but much of her work took place out of public view and behind the headlines.

She moves in conservative legal circles, participating in conferences hosted by the Federalist Society and writing an enthusiastic letter on Kavanaugh’s behalf when he was being considered for a seat on the Washington-based federal appeals court.

She has condemned what she regards as excessive regulation of businesses, including government overreach during the Obama administration that she described at one Federalist Society event in 2017 as ‘deliciously terrible.’

More than a decade earlier, she submitted a friend-of-the-court brief challenging the constitutionality of a board that was created by Congress to regulate the auditing of public companies in the wake of corporate accounting scandals.

Her position in that brief, and her work on behalf of the US Chamber Litigation Center, reflects a decidedly pro-business bent, though lawyers familiar with her career say that, like any attorney, she was tasked with advocating the interests of her clients.

‘Kate’s just always all about getting the right answer, even if it takes all night,’ said Helgi Walker, her friend and former colleague.

Kate Comerford Todd lives in Virginia with her husband Gordon and their five children.

Kate Comerford Todd, born Kathryn Louise Comerford, traces her ancestry back to Ireland and to John Joseph Comerford (1826-1896)

Updated: 10 April 2023

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