The coronavirus crisis hasn’t slowed President Donald Trump’s drive to stock the federal courts with conservative judges.
Trump this week moved to fill the only two open federal appeals court slots, nominating a pair of outspoken conservatives and drawing new protests from liberal groups.
The latest is Justin Walker, whom Trump said Friday he would nominate for a seat on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Walker, 37, made his mark in 2018 by forcefully defending then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his divisive Supreme Court confirmation battle. Walker called Kavanaugh “a fighter for conservative legal principles who will not go wobbly.”
The Walker announcement followed the president’s selection on Monday of Cory Wilson, a Mississippi state court judge, to fill a vacancy on the New Orleans-based Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
They would add to a roster of Trump-appointed jurists who are reshaping the federal courts. Trump has already successfully appointed 51 federal appeals court judges — more than a quarter of the full-time appellate bench — along with two Supreme Court justices. Almost all have deep conservative ties, including membership in the influential Federalist Society.
McConnell this week told the Washington Post he expected the Senate to confirm any judge Trump nominates this year. “I am glad the president continues to send us outstanding nominees whose confirmations will strengthen the rule of law in our country and the future of our Constitution,” McConnell said in a statement Friday after Trump announced the Walker nomination.
McConnell has said the Republican-controlled Senate would act even if Trump had a chance to fill a Supreme Court vacancy this year. Four years ago, McConnell blocked a vote on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, saying the approaching presidential election should determine who filled the seat.
The prospect that Trump might lose this November’s election will give McConnell an incentive to confirm as many nominees as he can this year. But confirmation efforts would have to compete for time with other Senate business, including the next rounds of economic stimulus legislation.
The Senate is out of session until at least April 20.
Critics pointed to comments both of the latest nominees made about the Affordable Care Act as private lawyers. Wilson called the law “perverse” and “illegitimate,” while Walker once said the 2012 Supreme Court decision that upheld the law was “indefensible.”
“Another anti-health care nominee during a pandemic. It’s SHAMEFUL,” Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, tweeted after the Walker announcement.
“President Trump and Senator McConnell should take a break from their efforts to radically remake the courts in order to protect the American people from disease and economic disaster,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center.
Walker, now a Trump-appointed federal district judge in Kentucky, once served as a law clerk to Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit. Both Kavanaugh and McConnell traveled to Louisville last month for Walker’s formal oath-taking ceremony.
“Justin Walker understands the role of a federal judge,” Kavanaugh said at the ceremony, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. “He reveres the Constitution, and he will work every day to preserve the American rule of law.”
When Trump nominated Walker to be a federal district judge last year, the American Bar Association rated him “not qualified,” saying he lacked any significant trial experience.
“The only reason Mr. Walker has been nominated for an austere judgeship is his membership in the Federalist Society and his far-right-wing views on health care, civil rights, and executive power,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said at the time.
But Mike Davis, president of the Article III Project, which works to support Trump’s judicial nominees, said Walker will give the D.C. Circuit “his everyday-American upbringing, Midwestern sensibilities, impeccable credentials, conservative judicial philosophy, and brilliant legal mind.”
Wilson is a former Republican member of the Mississippi House of Representatives who now serves on the Mississippi Court of Appeals. He got the nomination after opposition from Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri scuttled Trump’s first selection for the seat, Halli “Sul” Ozerden.
Twenty liberal and health-care-advocacy groups said in a letter to senators this week that Wilson “will put the health of millions at stake should he, as a judge, encounter litigation challenges to the ACA.”
Judicial Crisis Network President Carrie Severino, a supporter of Trump’s nominees, said Wilson “has been committed to conservative causes” throughout his career. ”I am confident that Wilson will bring this courage to the bench, and not be afraid to stand up for the rule of law,” she said. His nomination even while the White House focuses on the coronavirus outbreak “shows that judicial appointments will continue to be a priority.”