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Trump’s district court picks are languishing. That could change

Senate rules change would shift focus to lower court nominees

As Mitch McConnell focused on the president’s appeals court picks, district court judges have been piling up. Now that the Senate is mulling a rules change, the dam could break. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
As Mitch McConnell focused on the president’s appeals court picks, district court judges have been piling up. Now that the Senate is mulling a rules change, the dam could break. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As much as Senate Republicans pushed to confirm President Donald Trump’s appeals court nominees, the picks for the district courts have taken a backseat when it comes to getting a final confirmation vote on the floor.

That could all change with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s move to reduce the floor time needed for those lower court confirmation votes, a rules change the Senate could vote on as early as this week.

And there are plenty of district court nominees lined up and ready for votes for lifetime positions — some that have languished for more than a year.

Matthew Kacsmaryk, a nominee to be a judge for the Northern District of Texas, was first ready for a floor vote in December 2017. Howard Nielson, a nominee for the District of Utah, and Daniel Domenico, a pick for the District of Colorado, were ready for a floor vote in January 2018.

The rules change could allow McConnell to push the trio through in one day, two hours at a time. Under current rules — if Democrats objected to holding a floor vote on them and required 30 hours of debate — that might have eaten up an entire legislative week.

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McConnell’s strategy to focus on appeals court picks was clear in the first two years of Trump’s presidency and has been a point of pride for the Kentucky Republican. He took only 26 days on average to get a final confirmation vote on the floor once the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced those nominees, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The dozen Trump appointments to the influential appeals courts — which have the final say in all but the roughly 70 cases that the Supreme Court decides each year — set a record for a president’s first year in office, and Republicans have now confirmed 37 of those circuit court judges. There are only two awaiting a Senate floor vote.

But it’s been a different story for district court nominees. It took an average of 133 days from committee vote to final confirmation vote for those lower court picks, CRS found. And there are 37 district court nominees still awaiting a floor vote.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director for the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, said Republicans’ move to reduce the debate time on those district court nominees is necessary because Democrats have been playing politics with procedure.

Democrats required 30 hours of floor time even for judicial nominees who were first nominated by President Barack Obama and were renominated by Trump, Severino said, and there are a third more judicial vacancies now than when Trump took office.

“They’re using this for delay, pure and simple,” she said of Democratic tactics.

Daniel Goldberg, legal director for the liberal Alliance for Justice, said the change is a power grab by Republicans who want to rush these judicial nominees through without meaningful debate or proper vetting by the Senate and the American people.

“If there was a full debate and the American people saw who these people are, and what their full records are, Republicans would be afraid to support them and go home,” Goldberg said.

AFJ told senators it opposes Kacsmaryk, for example, because of past statements that are hostile to LGBTQ rights and efforts by women to fight for equality.

Information about some nominees has come out at the last minute, Goldberg said, and that is more important now because some Trump picks have failed to disclose information to senators as part of the confirmation process.

McConnell, in announcing the move Friday on the Senate floor, said the status quo “is unsustainable for the Senate and for the country,” because the tactics “guarantee that any Democratic administration is subjected to the same paralysis.”

“We need to restore the Senate to the way it functioned for literally decades,” McConnell said.

When it comes to procedural obstruction to votes for district court nominees, Democrats during the Trump administration have done less than Republicans did during the Obama administration, the CRS report indicated.

While 65 percent of Obama’s district court nominees needed a roll call vote as opposed to a confirmation by voice vote or unanimous consent, only 51 percent of Trump’s nominees needed a roll call vote.

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