Senate Democrats consistently bemoan the chamber’s processing of “right-wing judges.” And though some jurists are indeed controversial, several of those getting a Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday received sign-off from Democrats in the affected states.
President Donald Trump needs to make selections supported by Democrats to keep up his pace on judicial nominees, an especially tricky feat as the 2020 elections approach. But so far it appears the president has been able to find some allies. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on 10 nominees Thursday, including four district court nominees from states with at least one Democratic senator.
Though home-state senators don’t get much of a say on circuit court nominees any more, they still provide input on the district level. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham has said he will continue honoring blue slips — small blue-tinted questionnaires sent to home-state senators who are asked to check “approve” or “oppose” — for judges on the district level, despite recently not honoring them for circuit court nominees
The coronavirus pandemic that has caused chaos on all levels of society has also slowed the Senate’s confirmation process. The chamber confirmed several judicial appointments in February, after the impeachment trial ended, but has not taken any up since then.
That’s expected to change soon, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying several times that it’s his goal. The first sign of that came last week when the Judiciary Committee conducted a confirmation hearing for McConnell protégé Justin Walker for a place on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Walker, confirmed to be a U.S. district judge for the Western District of Kentucky less than a year ago, was panned by Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on the Senate floor last week.
The New York Democrat pointed to his slim judicial record, saying Walker had no trial experience beforehand. He “has more experience as a cable news commentator than he does trying cases in court,” Schumer said.
Four district court nominations on Thursday’s agenda — William Scott Hardy for the Western District of Pennsylvania; John Peter Cronan for the Southern District of New York; Thomas T. Cullen for the Western District of Virginia; and Jennifer P. Togliatti for the District of Nevada — received praise from their state’s Democratic senators.
“Following a thorough review of Cullen’s candidacy and after the American Bar Association and Virginia State Bar gave Cullen their highest ratings, Sens. [Mark] Warner and [Tim] Kaine determined that he is qualified for the position and would serve the Western District Court well,” a Kaine spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday, referring to Virginia’s Democratic senators.
83 vacancies, 47 nominees
There are 83 current vacancies in the federal judiciary, and 47 people have been nominated to fill them, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Of the remaining vacancies, three-quarters are on benches in states with at least one Democratic senator.
Of the 199 federal judges confirmed during the Trump administration, many were from states with at least one Republican senator or circuit judges whose jurisdiction crossed many states.
Some states still have several longstanding vacancies, including Washington state and California. Three positions on the Western District of Washington have been vacant for about four years. New Jersey has six judicial vacancies, and nobody has been nominated to those seats.
While some federal courts have hit roadblocks, others have been able to find suitable nominees.
In Nevada, Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen managed to get a pick they approved to fill one of the state’s two open seats.
“She is exactly what a judge should be on the bench — she’s respectful, she’s intelligent and fair,” Cortez Masto said in introducing Togliatti at her March confirmation hearing.
A spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Bob Casey — whose Pennsylvania counterpart is Republican Patrick J. Toomey — said he was pleased with Hardy.
“He is a capable attorney who has the necessary intellect, experience and character to faithfully and independently administer justice for the people of the Commonwealth, and the Senator is grateful for his willingness to serve,” Casey spokeswoman Natalie Adams said in a statement.
Adams touted Casey and Toomey’s long history of cooperation with the White House to get judges chosen, nominated and approved.
“Since 2011, Senators Toomey and Casey have worked together to vet, recommend and confirm 27 Federal District Court Judges for Pennsylvania,” she said. “During this time, only two states — New York and Texas — have had more district court judges confirmed to their federal benches.”