On June 15, 2022, President Joe Biden nominated Roopali H. Desai to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to the seat being vacated by Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz, who is taking senior status. Desai is a partner at Coppersmith Brockelman PLC in Phoenix, Arizona, where she has practiced since 2007. During her 16-year tenure in private practice, Desai has handled hundreds of trial and appellate matters across a wide range of issues in both state and federal court, specializing in election law. If confirmed, she would be the first South Asian person to serve on the court.
Born in Toronto, Canada to East Indian parents, Roopali H. Desai settled with her family in Phoenix, Arizona as a child. She is a triple graduate with honors of the University of Arizona, earning her B.A. in 2000, M.P.H. in 2001, and J.D. in 2005. Desai originally planned a career in medicine and obtained a master’s degree in public health. Then, while working at a facility for survivors of domestic and family violence, she witnessed the troubling systems survivors faced and decided to pursue a career in public interest law. During law school, Desai interned in the Health and Education Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and in the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Arizona.
Desai began her legal career clerking for then-Chief Judge Mary Schroeder on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the court to which she is now nominated. There, she drafted opinions and memoranda for a wide variety of civil, criminal, immigration, and environmental cases. After her clerkship, Desai joined the law firm formerly known as Lewis & Roca LLP as an associate in the litigation practice group. She engaged in complex civil litigation in state and federal court; advised organizational clients and school districts on matters including open meeting laws and public records; and served as pro bono counsel representing an incarcerated individual in a Prison Litigation Reform Act case.
In 2007, Desai joined her current firm Coppersmith Brockelman PLC as an associate. She initially represented a variety of clients on both sides of disputes, including hospitals in peer review proceedings; business clients in commercial disputes; nonprofits, labor unions, and individual candidates in political matters; and employers in whistleblower cases. Gradually, Desai developed an expertise in constitutional law, election law, public law, and campaign finance. She was promoted to partner in 2013 and began leading the firm’s elections, political, and public law practice group in 2014. In this role, Desai manages a large litigation team of partners, associates, and paralegals in representing clients such as labor and advocacy organizations, candidates, political entities, and Indian tribes. She also maintains a complex litigation caseload, including representing state agencies in regulatory matters and municipalities in administrative law proceedings.
Additionally, Desai works on appeals and amicus briefs involving constitutional and voting rights issues. For example, in Brush & Nib Studio, LC v. City of Phoenix, she worked on behalf of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, multi-faith, and nonsectarian organizations who emphasized a commitment to religious freedom and ensuring that all individuals, including LGBTQ+ individuals, remain free from discrimination. In the case, a stationery studio refused to create custom wedding invitations for same-sex couples, asserting a religious exemption. Although the trial court and court of appeals held that this practice by the business violated the Establishment Clause, the Arizona Supreme Court ultimately reversed. Outside of the courtroom, Desai serves as a Professor of Practice at her alma mater, the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law.
Desai has extensive experience in state and federal court, having tried approximately 70 cases to verdict, judgment, or final decision. She is especially known for her work in support of ballot measure campaigns and prevailing at the Arizona Supreme Court to void an unconstitutional ban on mask mandates. These cases, and several others, are discussed in greater detail below.
The Arizona Constitution gives citizens the right to legislate through ballot measures, an important expression of direct democracy. Desai has defended critical ballot initiatives, including Proposition 207, a November 2020 voter initiative which led to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Arizona. Prop 207 allows for the expungement of minor marijuana convictions and authorizes the Department of Health Services to issue marijuana establishment licenses to people who have been unequally harmed by previous laws. In addition to being central in the effort to pass Prop 207 and defending it in court, Desai co-authored the “social equity” rules for implementing the initiative once it was enacted.
Desai was also instrumental in defending Proposition 208 — an education tax initiative that Arizona voters passed in November 2020. Prop 208 imposes a 3.5% tax surcharge on higher earners, raising up to $940 million a year for Arizona’s K-12 public schools. Desai represented the “Invest in Education” committee and thwarted legal challenges to the initiative in Arizona Superior Court; however, the Arizona Supreme Court later ruled that Prop 208 violated the Education Expenditure Clause.
Desai has frequently represented education groups. In Perea v. Reagan, a group of teachers, parents, and citizens known as “Save our Schools Arizona” submitted enough valid signatures to qualify for a ballot referendum to repeal SB 1431, which expanded Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA), or school voucher program. Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the signatures and seeking an injunction to stop the referendum from appearing on the ballot. Desai defended the validity of the signature petitions in Arizona Superior Court, winning dismissal of the entire action with prejudice. Plaintiffs appealed directly to the Arizona Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial court’s ruling and allowed the referendum to move forward. In November 2018, Arizonans passed the referendum by a 65% to 35% vote, repealing SB 1431 and stopping the expansion of the voucher program.
In Arizona School Boards Association v. State, Desai represented the Arizona School Boards Association and other civic groups in challenging the constitutionality of four budget reconciliation bills that were “logrolled” into a general appropriations bill. One such bill prohibited school districts from implementing mask and vaccine requirements. The Superior Court struck down all four provisions as unconstitutional for failing to provide proper notice, and the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously affirmed. Among other things, this ruling ensured that school districts retain local control to implement COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Desai is one of the preeminent election law lawyers in Arizona and handled more than a dozen cases relating to voting procedures and election results during the 2020 election. Mi Familia Vota v. Hobbs involved a challenge to a state statute requiring voters to register no later than 29 days prior to election day. The plaintiffs argued the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors disrupted their efforts to register voters and thus the deadline should be extended. Desai, on behalf of the Secretary of State, argued an extension would make it more difficult for the Secretary and other election officials to fulfill their statutory obligations in administering the election. Adopting Desai’s arguments, the Ninth Circuit granted a prospective stay allowing voter registration through the date of its order plus a two-day grace period. This ensured the orderly administration of the 2020 election.
In an ongoing case Fann v. Kemp, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann ordered an “audit” of the Maricopa County results, despite no evidence of voter fraud. Desai is on the litigation team representing American Oversight, a nonprofit organization that sued the Arizona Senate to compel disclosure of records relating to the audit. Both the Arizona Superior Court and Court of Appeals held that the Senate failed to show that it was “legislatively immune” from making the records public. The case is currently pending before the Arizona Supreme Court, but has already resulted in court orders to turn over thousands of emails, texts, and other documents.
Desai has fought for equal justice across a variety of other subject areas. For example, in Neighbors for a Better Glendale v. Hanna, Desai protected tribal rights. The City of Glendale passed Ordinance No. 4840, declaring support for a casino project by the Tohono O’odham Nation, a Native American tribe, and directing the mayor to execute a settlement agreement. A group of citizens opposed to gaming on the property submitted petitions seeking to compel placement of a referendum measure on the ballot. As a co-lead attorney, Desai defeated the petitions in both the Arizona Superior Court and Court of Appeals, allowing the tribe to proceed with building its casino.
In UFCW Local 99 v. Bennett, Desai represented a group of unions — including local branches of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); the Arizona Education Association; and the Arizona Federation of Teachers Union — in challenging the constitutionality of SB 1365. They argued the legislation, which limited the ability of most union members to pay their union dues via payroll deduction and made it more difficult for unions to collect those dues, was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. Desai obtained a preliminary injunction and, ultimately, summary judgment in federal district court.
Pro Bono Work and Accolades
Desai lives by the mantra of “pay it forward” and incorporates service into her professional and personal lives. She has dedicated thousands of hours to pro bono work relating to children in foster care, voting rights, and public education, among other issues. For example, since 2013, she has represented the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona in a public records case to obtain documents evidencing the Department of Child Safety’s mishandling of child abuse and negligence cases. Desai also serves on several community boards, such as the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, Save our Schools Arizona, and Just Communities Arizona.
She has received many accolades for her public interest work. In 2022, Desai was named one of USA Today’s Women of the Year in a cohort that also included Kamala Harris and Melinda Gates. She was also named Valle del Sol Mom of the Year (2021), the Arizona Capitol Times Best Political Lawyer (2019, 2021), and one of The Best Lawyers in America for multiple practice areas: appellate practice (2021-present), commercial litigation (2015-present), civil rights law (2017-present), administrative/regulatory law (2019-present), and First Amendment law (2020-present). Desai is the mother of three daughters and has been married to her husband for 20 years.