On April 25, 2022, President Joe Biden nominated Judge John Z. Lee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to the seat being vacated by Judge Diane P. Wood, who is taking senior status.
Judge Lee has been a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois since 2012. He was the first Korean American ever to serve as an Article III federal judge in the Northern District and only the second Korean American to serve as a federal district court judge. Prior to joining the bench, Judge Lee was a trial attorney in the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and worked for 18 years in private practice. If confirmed to the Seventh Circuit, Judge Lee would be the first Asian American judge in the court’s history.
Judge John Z. Lee was born in Aachen, Germany in 1968 and spent his early childhood in South Korea. When he was four years old, his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. Judge Lee’s father worked at a factory and started a small family business, and his mother worked double shifts as a nurse. Judge Lee graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1989. He continued to Harvard Law School, getting his J.D., cum laude, in 1992.
After law school, Judge Lee worked as a trial attorney in the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice from 1992 to 1994. He represented the United States in cases arising under federal environmental statutes in the Third, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits.
In 1994, Judge Lee returned to Chicago to work in private practice with Mayer Brown and then Grippo & Elden LLC. He joined Freeborn & Peters LLP in 1999, becoming partner within two years. While in private practice, Judge Lee represented clients in complex commercial disputes, including cases involving antitrust, intellectual property, environmental, employment, and business torts issues. He represented a wide range of clients, from large multinational corporations to small business and individuals, and represented both plaintiffs and defendants.
One of the most notable cases he handled was In re Sulfuric Acid Antitrust Litigation, a multidistrict class action lawsuit in which the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants violated antitrust laws by conspiring to fix prices and reduce output in the sulfuric acid industry. Judge Lee represented the defendants and participated in all stages of the litigation. Eventually, the district court dismissed the case and the Seventh Circuit affirmed its decision. Judge Lee also represented several low-income clients on a pro bono basis. In Benford v. Chi. Beverage Sys., he represented a forklift operator alleging age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and in Scialabba v. Sierra Blanca No. I Condo. Ass’n, he represented a disabled individual suing a condominium association for violations of the Fair Housing Act.
On November 10, 2011, President Obama nominated Judge Lee to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He was confirmed unanimously by voice vote on May 7, 2012, and sworn in on June 4, 2012.
During his time on the District Court, Judge Lee has issued more than 800 opinions on a wide range of civil and criminal issues and has been reversed by a reviewing court only 11 times. He has presided over 35 trials, of which 89% were jury trials. Approximately half of these trials were civil and the other half criminal. Judge Lee has also sat by designation on the Seventh Circuit several times, authoring the opinion of the court in eight cases and a dissenting opinion in one case.
Judge Lee’s time on the District Court demonstrates that he is a fair, impartial jurist, committed to the rule of law and equal justice for all. The following cases are illustrative of his record.
Judge Lee has protected the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. In Ball v. Madigan, candidates for state political office sued the Illinois Attorney General and members of the Illinois Board of Elections, alleging that a state law banning medical marijuana providers, but not any other regulated industry, from making political contributions violated the First Amendment. After reviewing Supreme Court and Seventh Circuit precedent, Judge Lee concluded that the state had not made a sufficient showing that the statute was properly tailored to promote the government’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption. Accordingly, Judge Lee struck the law down as unconstitutional and enjoined the state from enforcing it.
In Nelson v. Advocate Health & Hospitals Corp., the Illinois Nurses Association, a union representing more than 140 advanced practice nurses, sent a letter to Advocate Health demanding that it recognize and bargain with the union. Advocate refused, and the union filed an unfair labor practice charge. Judge Lee ordered Advocate to bargain with the union in good faith while awaiting a final decision from the National Labor Relations Board.
While sitting by designation on the Seventh Circuit, Judge Lee authored the majority decision in DeKeyser v. ThyssenKrupp Waupaca, Inc. Here, employees at an iron casting manufacturer argued their employer violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying them overtime for the time spent showering and changing clothes. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. Judge Lee reversed, determining that the district court had ignored a factual dispute as to whether showering and changing clothes reduced health risks. He remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Judge Lee upheld Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order in Cassell v. Snyders. Applying Supreme Court and Seventh Circuit precedent, he determined that given the threat posed by the pandemic, the order preserved “relatively robust avenues” for religious observation and passed constitutional muster. The Seventh Circuit affirmed his decision.
In Troogstad v. City of Chicago, Judge Lee denied a group of Chicago city workers’ requests for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, which would have blocked the state and city from enforcing their respective COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements. Judge Lee pointed to a recent Seventh Circuit case, Klaasen v. Trustees of Indiana University, which rejected a group of students’ challenge to their school’s vaccination, masking, and testing rules. He determined that there was credible evidence from public health experts to justify the Illinois and Chicago policies, and the religious exemption provisions were sufficient.
Judge Lee has significant experience adjudicating criminal matters. For example, Judge Lee presided over the sentencing of Hasan and Jonas Edmonds, cousins who conspired to carry out an armed attack on a National Guard base in support of a terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Judge Lee imposed prison sentences of 30 years and 21 years, stating that their actions demonstrated “utter hatred and disdain for this country.” In another case, United States v. Bases, two defendants were charged with “spoofing” — placing bids in the commodity futures market with intent not to execute them. Judge Lee determined that placing an order in the futures market could give rise to violations of the federal wire fraud statute, and after a two-week trial the jury found both defendants guilty on all counts. Sentencing in the case is still pending.
While sitting by designation on the Seventh Circuit, Judge Lee issued a noteworthy dissent in Henry v. Hulett. As part of a training exercise for correctional officers, a group of incarcerated women were subjected to a strip-search during which they were ordered to expose private parts, some in full view of male guards. The women sued the prison warden alleging that the search violated their rights under the Fourth and Eighth Amendments. On appeal to the Seventh Circuit, a 2-1 majority held that the women had no expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Judge Lee dissented, concluding that incarcerated individuals have an expectation of privacy to be free from strip searches and that the district court should have assessed whether the search in question was reasonable. The full Seventh Circuit reheard the case and overturned the panel’s opinion, largely agreeing with Judge Lee’s reasoning.
Multidistrict litigation is a special procedure in which federal civil cases from around the country are transferred to one court. Judge Lee has presided over several notable multidistrict litigation cases, including In re TikTok, Inc., Consumer Privacy Litigation. In this case, consumers filed class actions against social networking giant TikTok alleging that the company violated California and Illinois privacy statutes by collecting biometric information from users without their consent. After requiring certain modifications, Judge Lee granted preliminary approval of a settlement agreement. The parties recently filed a motion for final approval, which is still pending.
In In re NCAA Student-Athlete Concussion Injury Litigation, former college athletes filed class actions alleging that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) had acted negligently in failing to protect them from known concussion risks. After significant litigation, Judge Lee approved an amended settlement that, among other things, changed the NCAA’s approach to concussion treatment and created a $70 million-dollar medical monitoring fund to provide concussion screening and evaluation services to all current and former student-athletes. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the settlement.
Professional Activities and Accolades
Throughout his career, Judge Lee has been active in serving the greater Chicago community and particularly providing legal services to those in need. Prior to becoming a judge, he served on the Board of Directors and as President of the Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services (CARPLS), a legal services “hotline” that assists more than 50,000 low-income clients a year in Cook County, Illinois. He also co-founded the Willow Creek Legal Aid Clinic, which provides free legal services to low-income individuals in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Additionally, Judge Lee was President and on the Board of Directors of the Asian Human Services (AHS) of Chicago, a social services organization serving Asian American immigrant communities. He was on the Board of Directors of the Asian American Bar Association (AABA) of Greater Chicago, where he worked to address various issues affecting Asian Americans in the legal profession. Today, he continues to be a member of the AABA and is a member of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA).
Judge Lee has received numerous accolades for his work, including the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Asian Pacific American Community Service Award and the Korean American Association of Chicago’s Korean American of the Year Award.