When Alex Acosta and Chief Justice Roberts Rubbed Elbows

When Department of Labor Secretary nominee Alexander Acosta was an associate at Kirkland & Ellis in 1996, he worked on a case alongside future U.S. Supreme Court Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.

The two lawyers represented coal mining companies in a union dispute with mine workers, according to a search of Bloomberg Law.

Roberts, while working at the law firm Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), represented companies including KenAmerican Resources Inc. in their appeal before the D.C. Circuit, while Acosta was part of a Kirkland team handling the case throughout the course of litigation, which had stops at the National Labor Relations Board, an administrative law judge, an arbitrator, and the district court before arriving at the D.C. Circuit.

The case centered on whether a labor agreement in place at a company in Ohio, called Ohio Valley Resources Inc., also applied to another company, KenAmerican, owned by the same owner in Kentucky. The two parties sparred over whether that agreement required the Kentucky company to hire displaced workers from the Ohio company.

Roberts won the case for KenAmerican on appeal at the D.C. Circuit, resulting in a ruling that the labor agreement at Ohio Valley Resources did not apply to KenAmerican.

To drill down further into the details of the case, view the D.C. Circuit ruling in favor of Roberts via Bloomberg Law, and a previous ruling by the late U.S. District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer.


Acosta Roberts

On left, Labor Secretary nominee R. Alexander Acosta; on right, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. Photo credits: Emily Harris and Dennis Brack/ Bloomberg News


John S. Irving, who is now of counsel at Kirkland & Ellis, worked on the case with Acosta, alongside Daniel F. Attridge, who is also of counsel at the firm while serving as dean of Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law.

In an interview, Irving recalled that Acosta was involved in every step of the coal mining company case.

“He was totally reliable, a good thinker, a good advisor, a good law interpreter, and a good researcher,” said Irving, who oversaw Acosta’s work at the firm from 1995 to 1997. “I just have the highest regard for him, personally and in every way.”

For Acosta, who on Thursday was nominated by President Trump to be secretary of the Department of Labor, the encounter was his second with a future Supreme Court justice. Before working at Kirkland & Ellis, he was a clerk for Samuel A. Alito, Jr. then a judge on the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

At Kirkland & Ellis, Acosta was part of the firm’s employment and labor practice, handling mostly due diligence for companies involved in mergers and acquisitions or bankruptcies, Irving said.

Acosta went on to be a member of the National Labor Relations Board before becoming assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and later the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida — all presidential appointments that required confirmation by the U.S. Senate as his current nomination to be secretary of the Department of Labor will.

Attorneys who have known Acosta throughout his career spoke highly of the Miami native.

“He is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with,” said Jeffrey H. Sloman, who served as first assistant U.S. attorney under Acosta in Miami and succeeded him when he left to take his current post as dean of Florida International University Law.

When Acosta was appointed U.S. attorney, Sloman recalled, he was an outsider to the office, parachuting in from Main Justice. As a result, some line prosecutors in the district were skeptical.

“He came in and immediately won people over by really understanding the details,” said Sloman, who now works in private practice at Stumphauzer & Sloman in Miami. “Whether it was an economic crime case or public corruption case — you name the type of case, he became immersed in the subject matter and had an appreciation for what people were doing.”

Miami defense attorney Neal R. Sonnett went up against Acosta’s office when Sonnett defended former lobbyist Jack Abramoff on fraud charges (Abramoff was convicted and spent several years in prison).

“I always found him to be fair and exceedingly bright and knowledgeable,” Sonnett said. “I have nothing but praise for him. I think his performance as U.S. attorney was excellent, and all I do is white collar criminal cases in federal court, so I deal with that office all the time.”

Sonnett and Acosta also work together at the American Bar Association where Acosta is chair of the Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities and Sonnett serves as a delegate for the Criminal Justice Section. Under Acosta’s leadership last year, the commission championed a resolution calling for law enforcement authorities to provide translations of the Miranda warning in Spanish. The ABA expanded on it earlier this month in a resolution calling for translations of the warning in as many languages as necessary to make sure people are informed of their rights.

Kendall Coffey, who served as U.S. attorney in Miami under President Clinton and now works in private practice, defended cases prosecuted under Acosta’s tenure in the Southern District of Florida and has served with him on a local judicial nominating commission. He said Acosta’s past experience would serve him well in the new role for which he has been nominated.

“He’s completely nonpolitical,” he said. “He was well respected by the prosecutors in the office, and it’s not an easy office — it’s among the most challenging districts in the country in terms of the law enforcement issues. His success there and his success at FIU indicate that he’ll be a very successful labor secretary.”

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