President Donald Trump has nominated 50 candidates to lifetime appointments to the federal bench — including a man who asserted transgender children were evidence of “Satan’s plan,” one deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association and a handful of prolific bloggers.
And the GOP has unanimously stuck by Trump’s judges. Senate Republicans have cleared judicial nominees at a comparatively rapid clip this year — even as the conservative base has complained they’re not moving fast enough — and are planning to pick up the pace even more in the coming months.
Among the more eyebrow-raising judges is Charles Goodwin, who has been nominated to the federal bench in Oklahoma. He is the first judicial nominee since 2006 to earn a “not qualified” label from the American Bar Association, which has screened judicial candidates since the 1950s.
But both of his Republican home-state senators, James Lankford and Jim Inhofe, say they’re still confident Goodwin is adequately qualified to serve on the bench and dismissed the ABA’s findings.
“He’s been a very solid jurist,” Lankford said. “We’re trying to find out the whys [of the ABA rating]. Of course, they’re very secretive about the process and why they make the decisions they do.”
Inhofe added: “I personally really vetted him well and took this very seriously. There’s got to be some reason for [the ABA ratings] that I don’t understand.”
The defense underscores Republicans’ commitment to remaking the federal judiciary for generations to come, even as the Senate GOP and Trump have butted heads on other issues and struggled to carry out their broader legislative agenda.
“The judge story is an untold story,” Trump said Monday at a news conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “When you think about it, Mitch and I were saying, that has consequences 40 years out, depending on the age of the judge, but 40 years out.”
No Republican senator has voted against Trump’s judicial nominees so far this year, either in committee or in confirmation votes on the floor.
The Senate has confirmed seven judges, including four to the powerful appellate courts and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. In comparison, Barack Obama had just three judges confirmed, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, at this point during his first year in office.
Even at the committee level, Republicans have been moving more quickly to fill the judicial vacancies.
As of Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will have held confirmation hearings for 26 district and circuit court nominees. At this point in Obama’s presidency, 14 of those nominees had hearings, according to Christopher Kang, who worked on nominations in the Obama White House.
Trump came into office with not just an open Supreme Court seat but a historic number of vacancies on the federal bench, thanks in major part to McConnell’s dramatic slowdown of judicial confirmations in the final two years of Obama’s presidency.
Trump’s slate of judicial nominees has enthralled the right.
“We are thrilled with the nominees that we have been seeing coming out of this administration,” said Carrie Severino, the chief counsel of the conservative advocacy group Judicial Crisis Network. “It’s an issue that unites Republicans of all stripes.”
Severino’s group is pressuring the GOP-led Senate to more expeditiously confirm judges and has been privately communicating with McConnell’s aides about the issue since threatening to wage an ad campaign against the majority leader last week.
Soon after, McConnell reiterated his desire to do away with the century-old “blue slip” tradition, in which senators can exercise veto power over judges nominated from their home states. He stressed that stance at the White House Monday, saying blue slips for appellate picks should “simply be a notification of how you intend to vote.” Otherwise, he added, Democratic senators could “blackball” a large portion of Trump’s circuit court nominees.
Democrats dismiss conservative complaints that the Senate is moving at a plodding pace on judicial nominations.
“The only fact conservatives can honestly cite is the high number of vacancies — but that is immediately undercut because Republicans are the ones who created it by confirming only 22 judges last Congress, the fewest since President Truman, including only two circuit judges,” Kang said.
Democrats and outside liberal groups have mounted a campaign to derail a slew of those candidates, particularly nominees who they say have shown a hostility to the rights of minorities.
Chief among their targets is Jeff Mateer, nominated to a federal judgeship in Texas, who in a past speech referred to transgender children as proof of “Satan’s plan.” Mateer, according to comments unearthed by CNN, has also implied that the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage is “disgusting” and could lead to polygamy or bestiality.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has said he still stands by Mateer’s nomination. But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) has publicly voiced some concerns, particularly that Mateer didn’t disclose the contents of those speeches before he and Cruz ultimately recommended that he be nominated.
“That’s a big problem,” Cornyn told Politico earlier this month. “That may not be the only problem, but that’s a big problem.”
The second-ranking Senate Republican said he is sympathetic to Mateer’s right to speak freely, particularly if some of his personal views stem from his religious convictions.
“But the problem is, for me, is the failure to disclose the information up front so we can then talk about that,” Cornyn said. “We want to make sure, fundamentally, everybody has access to fair and equal justice and it’s important that, notwithstanding the opinions that people may have about various subjects, that they separate that from what their job as a judge would be.”
A White House spokeswoman pointed to Trump’s comments on Monday when asked whether the administration still supports the nominations of Mateer and Goodwin.
But Severino defended them, calling the ABA a “liberal special interest group” and calling the campaign against Mateer “part of the same witch hunt” waged against Amy Coney Barrett, a 7th Circuit nominee whose traditional Roman Catholic faith had come under scrutiny from Democratic senators.
And other Senate Republicans have signaled concerns about previous nominees only to support them in the end. John Bush was confirmed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year, even as he came under tough questioning from Republicans about his political blog posts.
Among his commentary: That slavery and abortion were the “two greatest tragedies in our country” and “relied on similar reasoning and activist justices,” and linking to a conservative site that spread conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace. GOP Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and John Kennedy of Louisiana made clear they weren’t pleased with Bush’s writings, but they ultimately supported Bush, and he was confirmed on a 51-47 party-line vote in July.
Another nominee with a penchant for blogging is likely to face pointed questions from Democrats on the Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Brett Talley, who has been nominated to a federal judgeship in Alabama, wrote a handful of blog posts with pointed views on gun rights, including an item that urged readers to join the National Rifle Association and calling gun control legislation rolled out in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012 the “greatest attack on our constitutional freedoms in our lifetime.”
Democrats have few tools left at their disposal to stop confirmation of these lifetime appointments, after voting to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for nearly all nominations four years ago and watching Republicans eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees earlier this year. Still, they’re working to mount whatever protest they can.
“I think the very questionable caliber of President Trump’s judicial nominees demonstrates his contempt for the rule of law and the quality of the American judiciary,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “It’s a pattern that emerges clearly from his public statements and through his nominees that he puts politics first in catering to the far right and quality eighth or ninth, if at all.”