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Law clerk by day, ghost hunter by night, now Trump's judicial nominee

Few in memory have been nominated with credentials quite like those of Talley, 36, an Alabama native, a political speechwriter, an author of horror books and a fledgling lawyer who has never tried a case.

Brett Talley poses for a portrait at Washington’s Holy Rood Cemetery in December 2014.
Brett Talley poses for a portrait at Washington’s Holy Rood Cemetery in December 2014.Read moreMATT McCLAIN / Washington Post

By day, he was a clerk to a federal judge, a Harvard Law School graduate at the start of his career. By night, he was a ghost hunter and a devotee of the macabre.

Brett Talley is now President Trump's nominee for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench as a U.S. District Court judge in Alabama.

Few in memory have been nominated with credentials quite like those of Talley, 36, an Alabama native, a political speechwriter, an author of horror books and a fledgling lawyer who has never tried a case.

In 2009 and 2010, he was a member of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group, a volunteer operation that since the early 2000s has held all-night vigils and used infrared cameras, handheld sensors and other devices to search for spectral entities in plantation mansions, abandoned hospitals and other buildings.

"He was a real help. . . . He was quiet and real smart," David Higdon, the group's founder and leader, told the Washington Post. "We try to do everything scientific."

Talley did not respond to requests for an interview.

In 2014, when he was a speechwriter on Capitol Hill, Talley took a Post reporter ghost hunting in a District cemetery. As he paused at graves, Talley said he always maintained a level of skepticism during the paranormal outings.

"I tend to believe there's a good scientific explanation for the weird things people see and hear," Talley said at the time. "But I'm open to the idea, and it's fun."

Talley's nomination has been received with some skepticism.

In recent days, he has drawn heat from multiple Democrats in Congress for failing to disclose in a Senate questionnaire that his wife, Ann Donaldson, is chief of staff to the White House counsel. Critics said her position could present a conflict if issues related to the White House were to go before the district court.

Last week, an American Bar Association review committee gave him a rare "not qualified" rating because of his lack of legal experience. He is one of four Trump nominees to receive "not qualified" ratings this year, the first such ratings to be disclosed by the association in more than a decade.

In October, during a nomination hearing, some Democratic lawmakers questioned whether he could be an impartial judge, citing posts he made as a conservative blogger several years ago. One blog post he wrote after the Newtown, Conn., massacre was titled, "A Call to Arms: It's Time to Join the National Rifle Association."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) said at the hearing: "I have never seen anyone in 24 years before this committee with the strong statements that you have made on weapons. And when I think of what just happened in Las Vegas, it makes it very difficult for me."

Talley responded that he wrote the blog to stimulate discussion. "If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, I will take an oath to set aside my own views and to do justice," Talley testified.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) recently praised Talley as a good choice, saying in a statement he "has a wide breadth of various legal experience that has helped to expose him to different aspects of federal law and the issues that would come before him."

Largely overlooked in the controversy is perhaps the most remarkable detail in the professional history he gave the committee – that he was a member of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group for two years.

Talley was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1981. He attended the University of Alabama, where he earned top marks, and then went to Harvard Law, serving as an editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy.

He graduated in 2007 and, while clerking for U.S. District Judge L. Scott Coogler in Tuscaloosa two years later, asked Higdon whether he could join the paranormal group.

Higdon recalled Talley as a bright and charming guy with a budding interest in the supernatural. For all that, Higdon said he was a little wary with Talley, as he is with other volunteers. Higdon wanted to be sure Talley was joining in earnest. The group had about 15 members.

"I wouldn't have someone as a joke in my group. We do go out and have fun. But there's a time to get down to business," Higdon said. "The whole time, I don't think he was doing it as a joke."

The group went out once or twice a month to investigate old plantation mansions, abandoned prisons and other buildings they had heard might be haunted. Higdon said Talley joined them at least a dozen times.

The group does not try to banish ghosts, Higdon said, only to identify them.

"All we can do is say yea or nay – you have something, but we can't get rid of it," he said.

He said Talley helped carry and unpack cases filled with thermal sensors, infrared cameras, tripods and K2 meters, handheld electromagnetic field devices favored by paranormal investigators. Talley helped monitor the all-night "investigations," Higdon said.

Just as Talley's interest in the horrific was blossoming, he left the paranormal group behind. He went to work for Judge Joel Dubina of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, headquartered in Atlanta.

About the same time, Talley was writing horror fiction, including novels. In 2011 his novel That Which Should Not Be was published by JournalStone and was a semifinalist for the Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Award.

In a Q&A with Talley at the Unlocked Diary website, an interviewer wrote that the book has "awesomestastic gooeyness oozing from every page to where you will be licking it off your fingers and savoring it for days to come."

The interviewer asked Talley for his advice about the best way to get into trouble on a Friday night.

"I love old, abandoned buildings. Factories, insane asylums, that sort of thing," Talley wrote in the exchange. "I am always trying to get people to go with me, but no one ever does. You have to watch out or you'll get arrested for trespassing."

In 2012, Talley and Higdon co-authored Haunted Tuscaloosa, a short book of stories about ghostly doings in Alabama. At the time, Talley was working as a speechwriter for Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

Higdon said Talley wrote the book using Higdon's recollections and ideas. In the introduction, Talley raises questions about the line between personal experience and verifiable fact.

"In this book, there are children who died too early, professors who never left the classroom and even the spirit of a collie that still serves its master, long after his death," Talley wrote in the introduction.

"Some will criticize these stories, saying they are not real history," he wrote. "But that raises a question. What is real history? Sure, we know the dates and the major players, but the color, the heart of the matter – that we see through eyewitnesses."

Talley describes himself as a Christian in his Twitter profile.

"I personally believe in good and evil," he said in an online video interview about his books. "Sometimes good and evil are sort of shades of gray and they're all matters of perspective. And sometimes things that seem evil may be good."

From 2013 to 2015, Talley worked as a speechwriter for Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio). In a statement to the Post, Portman said, "Brett Talley is one of the smartest, most talented lawyers that I know, and I have no doubt he will be a terrific district court judge for Alabama."

Talley then took a job as deputy solicitor general in the office of the Alabama attorney general.

He and his wife, Ann, were married in 2015 in Tuscaloosa, where they met as undergraduates at the University of Alabama. She also attended Harvard Law School.

Talley came to Washington with the Trump administration in January, and he was named deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy.

In the recent hearing held by the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) asked Talley about his background as a horror fiction writer.

"How does that come in?" Flake said, according to a video of the hearing. "That's an interesting background for a judge."

Talley grinned broadly and said he would try to draw on his horror background when writing legal opinions.

"Well, Senator, I would hope that would at least make for some interesting opinions," Talley said. "And I will try to sneak in some horror references if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed."

Not everyone is amused. A scientist and a historian of science told the Post that Talley's activities and writing raise subtle but powerful questions about his views on science and the value of verifiable facts. Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University, studies science and technology, and the cultural production of ignorance, which he has termed agnotology.

"I don't think it's a good sign that a judge would embrace the reality of ghosts. What other parts of modern science would he be willing to reject? Climate change? Darwin's theory of evolution?" Proctor said in an email. "The judge will presumably be ruling on 21st-century disputes, not questions from the Middle Ages."

Higdon said he understands the skepticism about Talley's interest in the supernatural. He said that no one can prove ghosts exist. But he recalled the intensity he felt on a night not long ago when he had an "oh-my-gosh moment" in an old hospital, when a "full-blown shadow person" crossed his path in a basement corridor.

He said that many respectable people have believed in ghosts and that people like him across the country remain hopeful.

"We hope one day we can prove it," Higdon said. "It's faith."