Under The Radar: Trump’s Federal Judge Nominations

The Trump administration’s daily assaults to American laws and norms have produced a sort of outrage fatigue in many of us. That can be dangerous.

As we hold our collective breath and cross our fingers–hoping that Muller’s investigation will provide enough evidence of criminality and/or treason to make impeachment imperative, or for the Democrats to regain control of Congress in 2018, or (even less likely) for Republicans in the Senate to put the national interest above partisanship– we have difficulty keeping up with the multiple ways this administration is undermining the rule of law and weakening democratic norms.

The Resistance needs a strategy that distinguishes between horrific decisions that can be reversed if and when sanity returns to the Oval Office (or Republicans in Congress grow a pair), and those that will have profound and long-lasting negative effects on our constitutional system. We can afford to bide our time on the first category–although a lot of people will be hurt in the meantime –but we have to be absolutely ferocious in resisting measures that will damage the country in the longer term.

The media has highlighted Trump’s failure to fill hundreds of second-and-third level positions in his administration. That failure is further evidence of the ineptitude of the current White House, but it is also a blessing in disguise. (Case in point: the current nominee for Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture is not a scientist; he’s a right-wing talk show host. Better vacancies than filling an administration with such people. ).  An administration that cannot function properly cannot do as much damage as one that efficiently pursues counterproductive policies.

At the same time, the media has been insufficiently alert to Trump’s alacrity in filling judicial vacancies. A recent report from Huffington Post began:

Thursday was a good day for Amy Coney Barrett. A Senate committee voted to advance her nomination to be a federal judge.

It wasn’t a pretty vote. Every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee opposed her nomination. They scrutinized her past writings on abortion, which include her questioning the precedent of Roe v. Wade and condemning the birth control benefit under the Affordable Care Act as “a grave infringement on religious liberty.” One Democrat, Al Franken (Minn.), called her out for taking a speaking fee from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit that’s defended forced sterilization for transgender people and has been dubbed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But Republicans don’t need Democrats’ votes, and now Barrett, a 45-year-old law professor at the University of Notre Dame, is all but certain to be confirmed to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit — a court one level below the Supreme Court.

Barrett isn’t the only Trump nominee who is likely to upend settled Constitutional principles.

Consider John Bush. The Senate confirmed him in July, on a party-line vote, to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Bush, 52, has compared abortion to slavery and referred to them as “the two greatest tragedies in our country.” He has also said he strongly disagrees with same-sex marriagemocked climate change and proclaimed “the witch is dead”when he thought the Affordable Care Act might not be enacted.

The Senate also confirmed Kevin Newsom, 44, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in August. He wrote a 2000 law review article equating the rationale of Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 decision upholding slavery. He also argued in a 2005 article for the Federalist Society, a right-wing legal organization, that Title IX does not protect people who face retaliation for reporting gender discrimination. The Supreme Court later rejected that position.

Ralph Erickson, 58, was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in September. As a district judge in 2016, he was one of two judges in the country who ordered the federal government not to enforce health care nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.

Judicial nominees yet to be confirmed have supported discrimination against LGBTQ people, the “personhood” of fetuses, and a state’s right to criminalize “consensual sodomy.”

If Trump has been dilatory in filling administrative posts, he’s been an Energizer Bunny when it comes to the courts.  He has already nominated 17 circuit court judges and 39 district court judges, far more than his predecessors.

He’s also got more court seats to fill, having inherited 108 court vacancies ― double the number of vacancies Obama inherited when he took office. (That’s largely thanks to Republicans’ despicable years-long strategy of denying votes to Obama’s court picks to keep those seats empty for a future GOP president to fill–a strategy that prioritized partisan advantage over justice by overburdening federal courts and causing lengthy delays for litigants.)

Federal judges have lifetime appointments. Usually, the country benefits from the fact that tahese jurists are insulated against the threat of arbitrary dismissal; federal courts are currently demonstrating the great value of an independent judiciary as checks on Trump’s most autocratic tendencies.

If the administration is able to fill the federal bench with Roy Moore clones, however, we can say goodby to checks and balances and the rule of law as we have understood it.

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on October 15, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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