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They’ve Got Next: Appellate Fresh Face David Zionts

March 24, 2021, 9:31 AM

Going toe-to-toe with Rudy Giuliani in defense of Pennsylvania votes that Republicans wanted tossed out of the 2020 election was a once in a lifetime experience for Covington & Burling LLP partner David Zionts.

“Hopefully once in a lifetime,” he said, reflecting months later on the frenzied November litigation.

It was personal for the Pittsburgh native who braved a packed courtroom in the Middle District of Pennsylvania during the pandemic to face off against the former New York City mayor and deliver a five-minute argument at the end of a long day.

“Stepping back, it’s sad that it came to that and to have this kind of attack, literally requests to throw out millions of votes,” Zionts said of the failed Trump campaign effort. He co-led a Covington team representing voting rights groups and individuals.

“It’s sad that that’s something we were even talking about in federal court,” he said, “but if it is then I was privileged to be there and to be on the right side of it.”

The district court blocked what it deemed a disenfranchisement effort on Nov. 21. Then the 38-year-old Zionts led briefing on behalf of the same clients at the Third Circuit, which rejected the Trump campaign’s appeal without holding argument.

“He is not only an incredibly smart advocate, but a fearless one” Robert Long, the firm’s Appellate and Supreme Court litigation co-chair said.

Zionts’ defense of Pennsylvania votes was an outlier in the sense that the 2020 election litigation was unprecedented. But as part of a practice where Zionts regularly deals in high-stakes matters, it was right on brand.

In the current U.S. Supreme Court term, the former clerk to Justice Stephen Breyer has amicus briefs in two of the high court’s biggest cases—over the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the rift between religious rights and LGBTQ rights. Zionts also clerked on the D.C. Circuit for Merrick Garland, who was recently confirmed as Attorney General in the Biden Justice Department.

His work in the latest Obamacare case is a repeat of sorts, representing HCA Healthcare, Inc. the hospital chain that’s the country’s largest nongovernmental healthcare provider. Covington also represented the group as an amicus when the law was at risk in 2015’s King v. Burwell.

Zionts is hoping for the ACA to stand again. His brief tells the justices about the real-world stakes, and how striking down the law, he said, “would have real negative impacts on the people that the law is serving.”

In another big Supreme Court case, Fulton v. Philadelphia, the justices are considering whether the city can avoid working with Catholic Social Services in its foster care program due to CSS’ religious objection to working with same-sex couples. Zionts’ amicus brief for religious groups supporting the city adds an interesting wrinkle to the apparent rift, writing that “the free exercise of religion is not burdened—to the contrary, it is advanced— when government contractors voluntarily performing public functions are asked to adhere to governmental nondiscrimination policies.”

The former U.S. State Department special adviser also has a hand in noteworthy international disputes.

Zionts defended the State of Qatar from a Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act suit brought by ex-RNC finance chair Elliott Broidy. Broidy alleged a state-sponsored cyberattack. Zionts worked closely with the district court team securing dismissal on immunity grounds, and then in February 2020 successfully argued in the Ninth Circuit for affirmance, obtaining a favorable ruling in December.

Former President Donald Trump pardoned Broidy on his last day in office after Broidy pleaded guilty in connection with his lobbying for a Malaysian businessman seeking to end a federal investigation into the 1MDB global financial scandal.

The same month he argued for Qatar in the Ninth Circuit last year, Zionts, who was first in his class at Harvard Law, obtained a major ruling from a U.N. tribunal for Ukraine against the Russian Federation under the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“At the end of the day, whether it’s a sovereign, whether it’s a big company, whether it’s an individual, you’re just helping solve problems,” Zionts said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com